Lovely Limbs: Modern Stockings with Historical Style

Completely Hosed on Hose

Some women are obsessed with shoes. I love them, too, but my love affair with shoes is more practical than fantastical. My love of stockings, however, has grown exponentially over the years. Not only are they fun, they completely alter the way shoes fit. A shoe that is too big or even too small becomes much more comfortable with the right stocking. Keeping you warm as the weather turns chilly is a huge bonus as well.

Kittens and tea also help greatly.

When I talk about stockings, I don’t mean our modern idea of stockings– the sheer, skin tone nylons or the cutesy sock-shapes we hang up at Christmastime. Though they are both rooted in historical stockings, they are like the two seperated halves of the stocking story. Stockings in the past were knit or sewn, and while silk can be made very sheer, our ancestors valued its ability to hide skin just as much as it reveals the shape of the leg. Stockings in the historical sense are more akin to what we consider modern dress socks, and they aren’t just for ladies. Even while men were busy showing off sexy gams in tight-fitting stockings it was unseemly to show leg skin, so stockings were a necessary part of everybody’s wardrobe. Historical stockings ranged from thin silk to heavy wool, midcalf to thigh high, and plain white to wildly patterned. They’re a great way to add extra personality to any historical outfit!

The most basic of historical stockings is plain white. They were worn by men and women alike and generally reached the knee or just above it. A good pair of modern knee-high trouser socks will work nicely for almost any era from 1600-1900. I wear a pair of finely knit knee-highs I found at Dollar Tree and I love them!

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Dressed for the 1960s…

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..and 100 years “earlier” with my 1850s slippers!

To fit larger feet and calves, like Christopher’s, I purchased some “thigh high” knit tube socks. Since his legs are so massive, the stockings only reach his knees, but they still work.

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I don’t remember his calf measurement, but his thighs are 27 inches around (same size as my waist in a corset!) and those are size 15 EEEE feet, if that’s any indication. In contrast, these stockings fit my scrawny legs at thigh level, as you can see in my garter tutorial. Our ancestors didn’t have the benefit of spandex, so they used garters to hold their stockings in place. If you use modern stockings, you don’t need to worry as much about “losing your legs,” but some tall stockings still work best with garters, plus they look so pretty!

Historical stockings also came in many solid, natural colors. My go-to historical stockings are O-Basics from Sock Dreams. They come in a variety of nice colors and are great for keeping warm in winter:

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BAM! My beloved O-Basics in Rust.

Colored stockings were fairly common, especially reds and blues. The color of your stockings can be an important clue to your historical persona. For example, the Blue Stockings Society was an 18th century organization that promoted women’s education and intellectual hobbies. While Bluestockings did not necessarily wear blue stockings, the name indicated the informality and progressiveness of the club. Proper, fashionable, rich folks at the time often wore black or other expensively-colored silk stockings. Worsted wool stockings, in this case blue stockings, were considered to be informal and unfashionable. The term “bluestocking” indicated that a woman (or man) was more concerned with personal intellectual pursuits than the whims of fashion, but it was also used pejoratively around the turn of the 19th century to mean an ugly, frumpy woman (much like the word “feminist” is twisted today, sadly. It’s amazing how little things have changed in 200 years).

  If you’re looking for stockings with character, there are plenty of stunning stocking options to consider! This isn’t a complete list of hosiery types by any means, just  some of my favorite styles of fancy historical stockings and a few modern options that closely match.

Open Work Stockings – 19th Century

For an extra pretty pair of stockings, consider the texture as well as color. Victorian stockings are often knitted with lacy openwork designs that stretched open, revealing tiny peeks at the flesh beneath. A tad scandalous? Maybe to the ultra-conservative, but during this era of long skirts and ladies’ boots, openwork stockings offered some cool relief during warmer months.

Kitted Cotton Stocking with Double Zigzag Pattern, circa 1830

These stockings in the MFA Boston collections are very similar to this pair, dated nearly 50 years later by the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Linen Stockings with Triple Zigzag Pattern, circa 1875-1900 (“last quarter the 19th century”)

While it’s possible that one or the other is mis-dated, the similarity is indicative of the popularity of this style throughout the era. This homemade pair of knitted socks from the middle of the century has a similar openwork style, but this time horizontally;

Cotton Stockings with Scallop Pattern, circa 1860-69
Mid-19th century stocking are often shorter than stockings found earlier and later in the century. These hit mid-calf rather than over the knee. Others hit right below the knee.

There are TONS of modern stockings that feature openwork knit patterns in every color of the rainbow! The most common colors during the mid-Victorian era were black and white. But don’t feel like you have to limit yourself. There were some pretty wild stockings out there! Colors like plum, navy, and mustard are the perfect accompaniment for a ballgown in the 1850s or a walking dress from the color-crazy 1890s . Dainty, repeating open work patterns that are more geometric and abstract rather than floral are perfect for just about any costume from 1825 to 1900!

Super Stripes! – 1850s to 1890s

The 1890s were the heyday of wild stockings!  Bold colors and bolder designs were in vogue, especially the iconic striped stockings we know and love.

Cotton Stockings, circa 1890-99

Silk Stockings, circa 1880-99
The 1970s…is that you?!

The fashion wasn’t just for can-can dancers and other “ladies of the night” (who are, in fact, depicted wearing plain black stockings more often than patterned ones). Fancy stockings went well with fancy opera boots, reflecting the indulgent, candid attitude of the era– the more fancy you could squeeze onto your person, the better!

Another era that might surprise you with its hosiery is the 1850s:

Cotton Stockings, circa 1850-70

While considered a somewhat dowdy era, the 1850s saw a whole plethora of underwear trends emerge. Indeed, you almost call it the Era of Underthings! Lots of revolutionary supporting garments emerged during the era, including the pin and loop busk which allowed women to easily put on and tighten their own corsets (and marked the beginning of modern corsetry) and the iconic hoop skirt. Alongside these fashion innovations were some entertaining undergarment trends, bright red petticoats and cheerfully colored socks among them! Children’s socks were commonly patterned, showing candy stripes from under adorable little dresses throughout the Victorian era:

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Tintype of Two Children, circa 1880
Source: eBay

Modern horizontally striped stocking are easy to find anywhere, especially around Halloween. Many stores like Walmart carry them, though often they are toe socks. Athletic tube socks with a banded top are also a good option, plus they come in a wide variety of colors and heights, are easy to launder, and look ridiculously cute with a Victorian bathing or cycling outfit!

Back and White Over the Knee Striped Athletic Socks from Sock Broker

Stockings with Contrasting Clocks – 1600 to 1820

One of the most iconic historical style of stocking is the clocked stocking. Clocked stockings have decorative bands and flourishes ascending from the heel or decorating the ankle. Earlier clocked stockings have a contrasting wedge shape that begins at the ankle and goes up the outside of the leg, sometimes nearly to the top of the stocking. Clocked stockings of this sort were in style for over 200 years until about 1820:

Silk, Silver Gilt, and Cotton Stockings, circa 1610

Spanish Embroidered Silk Stockings, circa 1750-70

Italian Silk Clocked Stockings, circa 1780-1825

If you are looking for a classic, upper-class 18th century or Regency stocking, American Duchess offers fine modern reproductions of classic contrast clocked stockings:

A.D. Clocked Stockings in White and Black

Victorian Floral Stockings, circa 1830-1900

From the wedge-shaped clocked design came the flourish of the Victorian years. Solid-color stockings often featured pretty woven or embroidered decoration on the front of the foot and ankle. Contrary to popular myth, ankles weren’t strictly taboo during the Victorian era, so long as they were covered with stockings. In fact, dancing and walking frequently provided glimpses of a lady’s ankles, especially when ladies wore slippers.

Cotton Stockings with Embroidered Embellishment, circa 1860
These stockings are dated to the 1860s, but are more 1870s in style.

Finding modern socks with the design localized like this at the ankle is a bit tough, but once again, American Duchess swoops to the rescue:

A.D. Edwardian Silk Stockings
Though dated as Edwardian, these stocking will work well for late 19th century, too. American Duchess also has other styles with flourishes at the ankle.

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These fancy Floral Chain over the knee socks are a new from Sock Dreams! I love all the rich color choices, but this pretty beige is my fave.

If you feeling super crafty, you can make your own pair of embellished Victorian stockings! For example, the Dreamstress made a pair of silk stockings then used a bit of applique to accent her ankles:

Click here for her blog post.

For all the pretty without having to sew your own stockings, you could applique, embroider, or paint your chosen design onto a pair of pre-made stockings of your choice. However, if you’re feeling REALLY sassy, you can use one of the many stocking knitting patterns available online. The Antique Pattern Library, for example, has numerous Victorian instruction booklets that detail how to knit your own pair of stockings, including several editions of the Nonotuck Silk Company’s “How to Use Florence Knitting Silk” booklets from the 1880s.

Early Patterned Stockings – 17th Century

While most portraits from the 17th century show people wearing solid-colored stocking (usually in white, black, or shades of red), there are surviving examples of livelier stockings, like these:

Knitted Silk and Silver Gilt Stockings, circa 1600-1670

Child’s Silk and Gilt Stockings, 17th century

These pretties are usually child sized, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a little inspiration from them! Combine the knitted design with the embroidered motif from these luxurious adult-sized stockings of the same era, and you get these gorgeous stockings:

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S.D. Dreamer Jacquard Flowing Vine Stockings in Dijon and Navy

Can you imagine how fabulous these stockings would look with some American Duchess Stratfords or Virginias?!

Popular Historic Clothing Motifs: Stripes

Striped Clothing

Robe à la Française, circa 1775-80

Robe à la Française, circa 1778-85

Waistcoat, circa 1785

Visiting Dress, circa 1822

Ball Gown, circa 1828

Morning Dress, circa 1837

Smoking jacket, circa 1837

Visiting Dress, 1865

Depret Dress, circa 1867-69

Afternoon Dress, circa 1878-80

House of Worth Walking Dress, circa 1885

Striped Accessories

Pair of Man’s Hose, circa 1640

French Silk Slippers, circa 1835-1850

Silk Velvet Scarf, circa 1840-50

Stockings, circa 1880-90

Hat, circa 1890

Parasol, circa 1900-1910

Faberge Cigarette Case, circa 1899-1908

Another timeless design, stripes can be anything from the boldest black and white, to gentle white ribbons woven into a cream background. High-contrast stripes alone or embellished with florals were exceptionally popular in the 18th century and surged again in popularity beginning in the 1860s. By the turn of the 20th century, black and white stripes had become almost an obsession, appearing on everything from evening gowns to picture frames. I have chosen pieces here that display stripes as the key element of the design, but small doses of stripes are found on many pieces, often as repeating bands of trim around a hem or woven into ribbons on bonnets.

Historic Color Combos: Blue and Brown

Blue and Brown Clothing

Silk Gown, circa 1740

Riding Coat, circa 1760

Men’s Coat, circa 1785

Dinner Dress, circa 1820

Day Dress, circa 1843

American Silk Dress, circa 1845-50

Silk Dress, circa 1869-72

French Cotton Dress, circa 1882

Afternoon Dress, circa 1888

Blue and Brown Accessories

Purse, circa 1680

Men’s Gloves, circa 1690-1710

Shoes, 18th Century

Fashion Doll, circa 1755

Hat, circa 1760

Parasol, circa 1850

Hat, circa 1885-90

Agate Pendant, circa 1880

Brown and blue are an odd couple. They aren’t exactly complimentary colors (like, say orange and blue or red and green) or even analogous (similar, like red and orange), but they go together quite nicely if done right. Since brown is a mixture of red and green tempered with either yellow or blue, brown can take on many many different moods, either warm or cool. Brown can be anything from golden tan to dark umber. Paired with different shades of blue, a yellow-tempered brown could function as a jazzy, complimentary color or a blue-tempered brown could function as an neutral, analogous color…almost. The yin/yang effect of brown next to blue made the combo perfect for plaids and stripes. The color combination was very popular during the Victorian era, but you see very little of it before or after. From about 1815-1890, however, brown and blue were everywhere!

Historic Color Combos: Orange and Cream

Orange and White Clothing

Open Front Robe, circa 1735-40

Robe à la Française, circa 1770

American Cotton Dress, circa 1810

Dinner Dress, circa 1878

Dinner Dress, circa 1880

Corset, circa 1880

Court Dress, circa 1892

House of Worth Bridesmaid Dress, circa 1896

House of Worth Walking Suit, circa 1898

House of Worth Afternoon Dress, circa 1905

Orange and White Accessories

Nessus Abducting Deianira Cameo, circa 1815-25

Evening Turban, circa 1823

Silk and Ivory Parasol, circa 1868

Child’s Shoes, circa 1875

Pearl and Citrine Ring, circa 1890

Orange and cream is a beautiful combination reminiscent of gold and pearls (also, tasty Dreamsicles!). It’s both adventurous and refined at the same time. Orange is a volatile color with so many shades and variations from tawny gold to soft rust to deep burnt umber; some like it, some don’t, but when paired with cream, any orange suddenly becomes exceptionally elegant! The combination has appeared throughout history, becoming especially popular from the late Victorian period well into the 1970s.

Please note that it’s often difficult to tell from pictures–and even the historical garments themselves– what the true, original colors of the fabric were due to changes in lighting and how time has affected the quality of the dyes. What might look orange today might have been a bright red, or a beautiful white might have yellowed with age. I have tried to judge each piece fairly, making sure that it is either close to the original color or at least fabulous looking as-is! :)

Click here to discover more Historical Color Combos!

As with all my articles, all of the images in this article are either linked to larger versions, articles explaining them, or other fact-filled sites to help you explore, so please feel free to check them out!

Historic Color Combos: Black and Yellow

Black and Yellow Clothing

Court Coat, circa 1750-90

Evening Dress, circa 1818

British Silk Dress, circa 1836

Evening Dress, circa 1867

Fancy Dress (for a Costume Ball), circa 1880

Corset, circa 1880

Corset, circa 1890

Black and Yellow Accessories

Purse, 18th century

Mourning Ring, circa 1820

Fan, circa 1870

Stockings, circa 1882

Brooch, circa 1880

Gloves, circa 1920

The wild combination of yellow and back wasn’t always just for bumblebees! The pairing sprung from the luxurious combination of black and gold, a favorite for centuries. Substituting brilliant saffron for the more subdued glimmer of gold turns ordinary evening gowns into graphic, comic-book heroine style outfits! The effect is undeniably seductive and bold, traits that helped boost the combination’s prevalence during the late Victorian period, a time of can-cans, night life, and high hopes! Lighter, less shocking colors replaced such brash combinations around 1900. The color combo became rather unfashionable until the late 1960s and 1970s when mod and disco lovers picked it up.

Click here to discover more Historical Color Combos!

As with all my articles, all of the images in this article are either linked to larger versions, articles explaining them, or other fact-filled sites to help you explore, so please feel free to check them out!

Historic Color Combos: Red and Blue

Red and Blue Clothing

Men’s Suit, circa 1780

Men’s Waistcoat, circa 1770-90

Russian Sarafan and Jacket, circa 1840

Evening Dress, circa 1841

British Silk Dress, circa 1830-40

Evening Cape, circa 1860

American Dressing Gown, circa 1870

Rodrigues Dinner Dress, circa 1875

Girl’s Ensemble, circa 1876

Darlington Evening Dress, circa 1880

Wool Dressing Gown, circa 1890

House of Worth Evening Ensemble, circa 1893

Lady’s Gym Suit, circa 1893-1898

Swimwear, circa 1900

Elizabeth Hawes Gown, circa 1937

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Red and Blue Accessories

Brisé Fan, circa 1700-30

Silk Mitts, 18th century

French Revolutionary Cap, circa 1791-94

Shoes, circa 1790

Shoe Rosettes, circa 1824 (great history with these!)

Beaded Purse, circa 1830-60

Turban Hat, circa 1850

Silk Pumps, circa 1873

Giuliano Brooch, circa 1896-1912

Art Deco Pin, circa 1925

As you can tell, red and blue were in fashion in the 18th century (due to surging patriotism) and then faded out until the 1870s when chemical dyes made richer, longer-lasting colors possible. Red and blue are a dynamic duo. You cannot be a wallflower in an outfit that contains both cool blue and blazing red! The combination of the two creates visual resonance especially if the shade and tint are similar. When you put these colors together, your brain has to analyze two separate wavelengths: one long and one short. In other words, looking at a red-blue combo makes your eyes and brain pause, so you have to take a slightly longer look at a red and blue dress than you do at other color combos. You will literally be a showstopper for 1/100th of a second longer than any other person at the party!

Click here to discover more Historical Color Combos!

As with all my articles, all of the images in this article are either linked to larger versions, articles explaining them, or other fact-filled sites to help you explore, so please feel free to check them out!

FLATFORMS: The Safer Chopine

I love flirting with dangerous fashion!

They’re flats. They’re platforms. They’re flatforms and I just about died of giddiness when I found them! Everywhere I look for shoes, I find GIANT heels with platforms. Lovely as they are to look at, I can’t wear that type of shoe for very long comfortably (i.e. more than 5 minutes), but I enjoy the boost they give me. I have very flat, wide feet, so I live in ballet flats and “foot sacks:” leather tennis shoes without arch support and hardly a sole to their credit. Neither of these do much to improve my height. That is why when I found these, I almost knocked my chai tea off the desk:

This is Gee WaWa Women’s Daphne Two-Piece Flatform in Olive Suede. It’s plain, simple and fairly neutral. It doesn’t scream excitement or wild new trend, but it’s not just a new shoe trend, it’s a remake of this shoe trend:

In the 1970s, platforms were ridiculously huge, both in size and popularity. With platforms reaching heights even more lofty than today’s wedges and stilettos– upwards of 10 inches– of course everyone wondered: what could these wood and cork hooves be doing to my health?

Video: 1970s Platform Shoes

Having big chunks of dead weight on your feet may put you at a greater risk of a twisted ankle, but history is no stranger to dangerous fashions (like wasp waist corsets). Health risks all depend on how extreme you go. Just as the gentleman explains near the end of the 1970s platform shoe exposé, the severity of your platform depends not only on its height, but the heel to toe height difference. The platforms on modern flatforms vary in height, but my favorite green suede ones have a relatively small platform and almost no change in heel altitude, unlike most dress shoes. The physics of flatforms are much different than a heels, so you don’t walk like you are wearing heels. In fact you will walk like you are wearing:

Chopines! Yes! Flatforms, especially those green suede ones, remind me of Renaissance chopines. While the Italian chopines usually have a fairly steep incline, you can see that it is not arched like a modern heel. Spanish chopines are usually flatter:

Here is a side shot so you can see the difference in silhouette. The Spanish chopine is on the left and the Italian on the right:

That’s why I am so excited for this new footwear trend! A flatform shoe would much more closely mimic the actual feel and gait of a low chopine; ergo, I might be able to find a pair suitable enough to wear to Renaissance faire! It’s like solving two puzzles in one shoe: how do I gain height without a heel and where on earth can I find chopines? Solved!

I believe this discovery was well worth nearly toppling my morning cup of tea, don’t you? :)

Update: I just remembered this amazing Venetian leather shoe in the collections at the MFA! It looks almost identical to many of the modern flatforms, minus the back heel strap!