AKA: hose, stay-ups, hold-ups
How to say it: stok-ing
- knitted covering for the feet and legs
- usually made from nylon or silk
- closely fits the leg
- held up by suspenders or by an elasticated band at the top of the garment
- covers leg from mid-thigh to toes
Origins of the style: Stockings in various forms have been adorning the legs of men and women for centuries. Beginning with strips of fabric wound around the leg worn around the 9th century, the stocking evolved into leg shaped garments made from woven fabric and sewn together. In the 16th century knitted stockings, that resemble the stockings were know today, were being made by hand in Europe; these stockings were incredibly time and labour intensive and it wasn’t until the invention of the stocking knitting machine by an Englishman, Reverend William Lee, in 1958 that stockings began to become more common place. Stockings were made from silk, and colourful and were often adorned with embroidery and silver or gold threads – despite being completely hidden under voluminous skirts. Due to the use of silk and addition of embroidery, these early stockings were very expensive and as therefore only worn by the aristocracy.
Once the knitting machine was introduced the manufacture of stockings remained fairly similar for about 200 years – garments were knitted flat and then seamed to fit the leg. In the 1800s circular knitting machines were invented which allowed for the manufacture of seamless stockings, however these stockings had no shaping and were often badly fitting and unflattering.
During the Victorian Era, a ‘proper’ woman would wear black, white or pastel coloured stockings that were often embroidered around the ankle and lower leg. Social rules dictated that women’s legs should be completely hidden from view under heavy skirts and as such stockings would never be seen, however, if a woman was to ‘accidentally’ lift her skirts high enough for the embroidery to be seen by a man, it would have been quite a racey exchange and caused quite a bit of excitement – Victorian era flirting at its best!
Victorian stockings worn by the wealthy were made from silk, wool, linen or polished cotton, and were held up with knitted garters that attached to the corset. At the turn of the century, women’s lives became more active and their fashions changed to accommodate this new lifestyle. As skirts got shorter and it became socially acceptable to expose the shape of the leg when participating in active pursuits so women wore thick wool stockings and calf-length boots to maintain a level of modesty.
In 1910 the man-made fabric called rayon was invented and began to replace expensive silk and cotton in hosiery manufacture, making stockings more affordable and therefore more widely available to the common woman.
The 1920s saw hemlines rise to previously unseen heights and stocking design reacted to the changing fashions by becoming highly decorated. The rejection of the corset for softer, less restrictive underwear in this era meant that women needed a new way to hold up their stockings, so garter belts were introduced. During the decade it became fashionable for women to roll their stockings down over their garters to create a padded look just above the knee.
In 1939 DuPont debuted nylon, the worlds first synthetic fibre. It was as sheer and silky as silk and rayon but much stronger and took the hosiery world by storm. With the advent of World War II, DuPont stopped making stockings to concentrate on the war effort and ‘nylons’ became rare and highly prized. So great was the desire for nylon stockings during the war, that products like liquid stockings by Helena Rubenstein were introduced for those who could afford them (basically like a fake tan or leg paint), and those who could not often resorted to dying their legs with coffee, cocoa powder or gravy browning, and drawing on a seam with eyeliner pencil. When the war ended there was a rush for nylons and stockings remained a popular, must-have item for women for the next couple of decades.
In the 1960s fitted, seamless stockings began to take off. The style had been invented in the 40s, however women of the decade worried that it would look like they weren’t wearing stockings if there was no visible seam (which was unthinkable) and so they were not overly popular. However, this changed in the 60s and the seamless version with reenforced heels and toes became popular.
The 1960s also saw the introduction of tights or pantyhose. The new style of hosiery evolved as mini skirts became popular and the short skirts required more coverage than the traditional stocking. Tights had captured the lion’s share of the market by 1970 and despite lengthening the style to sit higher on the leg, the stocking could not claw its way back into popularity.
Tights remained the most popular form of hosiery for the rest of the decade and into the next, despite innovations in stockings like the invention of hold-ups in the late 80s (stockings that didn’t require a garter belt). Stockings have had small burst of popularity over the decades with the revival of vintage dressing and other fashion trends, however they have failed to rise to the levels of popularity that they once had. Despite this, stockings maintain a steady presence on the marketplace; modern stockings tend to be seamless and sheer, but a range of colours, patterns and styles are available. In spite of their falling popularity, stockings have developed into a bit of niche product and due to this niche status it seems unlikely that they will ever fully disappear from the face of fashion.
Origins of the name: I couldn’t find out where the word stocking came from, but it came into usage in the late 1800s.
Other random facts:
- the first pair of mechanically produced stockings were presented to Queen Elizabeth I in 1607.
- men continued to wear stockings until the 18th century when pants became more fashionable.
- despite it being a somewhat risqué trend, Queen Victoria did wear stockings with embroidery around the ankle.
- when DuPont rereleased nylon stockings to the public after the war they underestimated the demand for them and so were understocked. This resulted in the ‘nylon riots‘ occurring in America when a new shipment was delivered for a year.
Stockings in the modern marketplace
Despite being somewhat of a niche product, there are plenty of stockings available on the modern marketplace. From hold-ups to those that require a garter belt, there are a surprisingly large variety of styles, colours and designs available to modern woman who prefers stockings to tights.
Can’t find the term you are looking for? Let me know in the comments and I’ll add it to my list!