Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Mercredi: The Art of Beauty

When I was working in an office, and I'm dating myself here, we ladies had to wear skirts and the gentlemen had to wear suits.  There was the inevitable groaning about ties and pantyhose with the majority of the ladies claiming that "some man" surely designed both.  Particularly the pantyhose. Although history would prove my distaff coworkers mostly wrong, it turns out that there is a grain of truth to their grumbling.

Stockings or hose as we know them today probably started as a necessary fashion choice of the Northern tribes known to the Romans as barbarians.  It goes without saying that it gets a lot colder in Northern Europe than along the sunny Mediterranean so, aside from those wacky, blue-faced Celts, most of the tribesmen in cooler latitudes chose to cover up their legs.  This was accomplished with a kind of leather legging that was fastened around the thigh with cording of leather or fabric. The cord was then wrapped around the leg down to the ankle.

This trend in men's legwear continued into the Medieval period but with the leather legging replaced by a knitted stocking.  The trend began in Italy, where the stockings were held up with a sort of garter belt around the waist, and headed north in a hurry.  By the mid-16th century, the stockings had become what we would now recognize as a pair of hose.  They were made from cloth or silk and during the high Renaissance might be worn parti-colored, with one leg mismatched to the other or a pattern, in particular the now ubiquitous diamond pattern that we associate with court jesters, all over.

By the mid-17th century, what was known as trunk hose had become the norm. These continued to be made of cloth or silk, but were attached to the short breeches, often called slops, worn by both the fashionable and the working man.  While silk was preferred at court, home-knit wool or linsey-woolsey was the more frequent material for these type of leggings.

Meanwhile, women had jumped on the stocking bandwagon.  For a number of centuries after the Renaissance era, European women wore their stockings only to the knee or just above.  Here, they were gartered with ribbon, leather or string, depending on the means of the wearer. A well constructed pair of wool stockings was expected to last a working woman for a year and extra petticoats would probably have been necessary in colder climates to keep the exposed area from knee to waist at least somewhat comfortable.

By the 18th century, cotton stockings were available, although silk was still the favored material for the wealthy.  By this period both men and women were wearing these accessories no higher than the knee, and the mania for exquisite, jewel-encrusted garters, which began during the Restoration of Charles II in England, had spread like wildfire.

Stockings also began to be embroidered, particularly at the outside ankle, with what was called "clocks".  These were detailed embellishments, either of scroll work, natural items like leaves or flowers, or even animals, that were particularly popular with the ladies.  Une roulette ostentateuse, "a flashing clock," became a euphemism for a certain kind of lady among the Creoles of old New Orleans in the late 18th century.  A lovely example of a late 19th century pair of stockings with peacock clocks can be found here. Most stockings, particularly those of ladies, were white throughout the 18th century and into the Victorian era, with dove gray and - almost exclusively in Paris - nude making a brief appearance during the Napoleonic era.

As the 19th century advanced, men's stockings turning into socks while women's stockings became more and more daring.  By the 1870s, Paris was exporting stockings saturated with color. Purple, royal blue and even black were popular but the most coveted stockings were made of scarlet silk. The stocking color often matched that of the petticoat. A brief mania for stockings with horizontal striped, usually alternating black and red, took hold during the 1890s.

At the dawn of the 20th century, more familiar, muted tones became popular and stockings were, for the most part, made by machine.  A garter belt, usually attached to some form of undergarment, held up stockings that were often matched to the shoe color in shades of taupe, beige and particularly gray.  The mad '20s saw ladies casting off their girdles and rolling down their stockings, but they the mid-'30s garter belts were again firmly in place although some of the privileged who could spend time tanning went without stockings, at least in the summer.

After World War II, a reborn mania for fine, nylon stockings emerged spurred no doubt by the material's sudden availability.  The design houses of Paris would custom dye them for their clients. R. Turner Wilcox, in her contemporary and addictive book The Mode in Fashion described the joy of post-war stockings:

With the quantities of exquisite sheer nylon stockings again available, the bare-legged fashion has left us. The general color is darker and in many hues of muted tones of green, plum, brown and black, but so gossamer sheer are the stockings that such colors appear but as shadows over the flesh.

It wasn't until the late '60s and '70s that the "innovation" of pantyhose came upon woman kind.  Thankfully, we're not as likely to be wearing them now. Instead, we've traded their tyranny for the joys of "shapewear". But that is an entirely different subject...

Header: Fine Feathers stocking ad c 1954 via Mid-Century   


Timmy! said...

As all right thinking people know, Pauline, stockings are sexy.

Pantyhose, not so much...

Pauline said...

Absolutely. But nothing beats a great pair of barbarian legs in leather!