When one thinks idly of Victorian ladies’ stockings – perhaps while at the lights, or waiting for the tram – ‘drab’ may spring to mind (along with itchy). Bright sunshine yellow with zig-zags probably does not. Yet a glance within the National Gallery of Victoria’s wardrobes reveals a surprising range of stocking palette, questioning ideas of Victorian frump – at least on special occasions. Stockings with bold stripes, aniline-dyed colours and richly decorated ‘clocks’ may be seen as the offspring of centuries of technology.
Elizabethan England could already offer machine-knitted stockings to both men and women. There were two main construction methods: ‘full-fashioned’, or ‘cut-ups’. More expensive, full-fashioned hose were made by frame-work-knitters out of worsted wool, silk or sometimes cotton. They were ‘fashioned’ by tapering the knitting in the flat, creating a strong selvedge along each edge. After adding a knitted heel and toe section, each leg was seamed carefully up the centre back on a leg-shaped board. Embroiderers sewed clocks (decorative motifs) on the lower leg and foot. Less expensive were ‘cut-ups’. Without selvedge’s, these were simply cut out from frame-knitted fabric and risked unravelling. Getting about in your saggy cut-ups was tricky: the bulky seam was uncomfortable, and they were liable to burst open in moments of exuberance.
Display of the leg in a pair of fine stockings was of vital fashion importance for men for centuries. The poet John Keats joked he would go to the ball with the names of his lady-loves embroidered around his calves in 1815. By this date, one could sport a pair of full-fashioned silk velvet brocade stockings to show off shapely pins. But shortly after the Duke of Wellington was turned away from his club for wearing trousers, it was all over for the breech. Stockings went too: first shrinking to ‘short stockings’ still held up with garters, then to ‘sandals’ – or as we know them – socks. Women’s stockings, sadly less elaborate than men’s, became the mainstay of the industry.
By 1860, the stocking industry’s glory days were over, yet many of the decorative traditions remained. These machine-made fully fashioned yellow stockings include decorative zigzagging across the lower leg, knitted rib for a better fit without elastic, and selvedge centre-back seams shaped to the calf: all providing, to quote William Felkin, an 1867 hosiery manufacturer) ‘….so respectable an appearance as to bring in sale very advantageous prices.’