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?!

The Three Shoes Every (Penniless) Historical Costumer Needs

For Every Cinderella Without a Fairy Godmother
A.k.a “Shoes for Stepsisters”

It may be impossible for a fashionable woman to have too many shoes, but what if your problem isn’t a lack of closet space, but a lack of funding? As lovely as it is to get a fresh pair of shoes for every new outfit, it’s not always feasible. Historically accurate shoes can be expensive. If you don’t like to tie yourself down to one specific stylistic decade, buying all the necessary historically accurate boots, slippers, and heels can really drain your bank account if you’re not careful. I love historical reproduction shoes, but between needing a new corset, buying sewing supplies, and having the annoying habit of needing food to survive, I don’t really have enough money to buy a new pair every time I change costuming eras. Instead, I have built up a core set of three shoe types that can mutitask across time periods.

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My Three Favorite Costuming Shoes

These shoes may not be historically accurate, but they are historically appropriate. There are only so many ways to shod the human foot, so while materials and decorations may have changed, there are a few basic shoe styles that have cycled through history in different incarnations. We are blessed that modern fashion is so all-encompassing: we have every imaginable shoe type available to us! It’s just a matter of finding the right one for the right price. With a little legwork and luck, you can squeak by in nearly any era with only three pairs of shoes!

I chose the following shoes for their comfort, simplicity, ease of availability, and ability to be worn as everyday modern shoes as well (Huzzah for raiding your own closet for historically appropriate shoes!).

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Low-Heeled Mary Jane or T-Straps
Wear them for: Elizabethan and Stuart (1590-1630), Victorian (1860-1900), and Edwardian (1900+) Costumes

My pair:

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T-Strap Shoes by Angel Steps

My pair takes the Mary Jane style a bit further by being a t-strap, but both styles are workable. This is my favorite pair of shoes! Angel Steps brand is marketed by Amerimark and comes in many different variations and styles. The company, however, can be difficult to work with. You can read more about that adventure and see these shoes in action in “Halloween Thrifting Challenge: Early Stuart Era (1603-1625)

Mary Janes are shoes with a strap over the instep. They were popular in the Elizabethan era, and can be used for mid-Victorian shoes. The heyday of the strappy Mary Jane, however, was definitely the Edwardian era.
There are many variations of the Mary Jane style: wide straps, thin straps, t-straps, or multiple straps over the instep. For the most versatility, though, a single strap or thick t-strap is the easiest to blend into multiple eras. The key to the historical appropriateness, however, is the low heel. Modern women love towering high heels, but historically speaking, “high heels” weren’t very common and usually maxed out around 3 inches. For the most bang for your buck, choose a neutral color like black, white, or brown. These colors will work in all eras and are the most authentic, especially for earlier costumes.

Extant Examples:

Elizabethan/Stuart
Leather Shoe, circa 1600

Elizabethan shoes had a long tongue with straps over them that tied in place. This style of shoe is very hard to find (unless you buy recreations or find the miraculous modern incarnation), but you can modify a pair of modern Mary Janes to mimic the look by wearing a fabric rosette on top. Rosettes were super trendy during the early 1600s and were rather large. Simply slip a rosette onto the strap of your Mary Janes and you’re good to go! Both men and women in this era wore this style of shoe, so if you are a dainty-footed gentleman, take a peek into the ladies’ shoe department. Just remember that women’s shoes run smaller than men’s, so order up about two sizes (an 8 in men’s is about a 10 in women’s). Surprisingly, side buckles existed, but likely just on children’s shoes.

Victorian
Women’s Bar Shoes (Mary Janes), circa 1880-85

Mary Janes were known as “bar” or “strapped” shoes during the 19th century (Mary Jane was a patented shoe name in the 20th century) and were very popular, especially during the 1890s.

Edwardian, Flapper, and Beyond
Bar Shoes (Mary Janes), circa 1919

Once the 20th Century hit, Mary Janes and T-straps were all the rage! Multiple thin straps were especially popular and usually had long, pointy toes, but simple rounded toes were still used for utilitarian working and walking shoes.

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Pointed-Toe Louis Heel
Wear them for: 18th century, Late Victorian (1870-1900), and 20th Century Costumes

My Pair:

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My Sexy Suede Heels!
I found these at the local Thrift Town second hand shop. They were $3 and are really REALLY worn in (they need new heel tips right now). Suede isn’t historically accurate for 18th century shoes, but unless you get really close, it doesn’t really matter. The shape is uncommon, but not unheard of.

The Louis heel is a curvy heel. Technically, a Louis heel has a very specific curve and other variations have other names. However, for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to call all appropriately curvy heels Louis heels because when you’re poor like me, there’s no point squabbling over details, especially since a good curvy heel is so hard to find anyway.
Louis heels are named after King Louis XIV and Louis XV of France. Both loved heels and show off their collections in many of their royal portraits. Many of the heels on Their Majesties’ shoes are blockier than later incarnations. The curvier heels seen on lady’s shoes has also been attributed to Madame Pompadour, King Louis XV’s mistress. Once she started wearing curvy heels, so did every other 18th century lady of fashion!
Heels went out of style during the French Revolution, but were revived in the late Victorian era. The American Bicentennial in 1876 created a rococo revival. 18th century styling, including buckles, can be found on many shoes of the era. The Louis heel stayed fashionable into the 20th century, but other heel styles like the mid-century stiletto pushed it out of the limelight and into obscurity. However, finding a good curvy heel is still possible, especially at second hand shops and online. Pretty much any color or heel height under 4 inches will do, but choose a color and heel height that that you feel comfortable wearing often.

Extant Examples:

18th Century
Latchet Shoes, circa 1760-75
and
Mules, circa 1740

18th Century Louis heeled shoes had latchets–two straps that crossed over the top and were held in place with a buckle. Outside of reproductions, these criss-crossing latchets aren’t available on modern shoes. With a little bit of creativity and some pretty fabric, you can recover shoes to create latchets, but another option that requires no alteration is the mule (backless heels). Mules with pointy toes were very popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so there’s usually a good selection available second-hand.

Late Victorian
Rococo Revival Style Pumps, circa 1890

By about 1870, the modern pump was already beginning to be recognizable. Many evening shoes of the era were just like a pair of pumps you would find in your neighborhood shoe shop today. If you find a pair of leather pumps with a curvy Louis heel, you’ve struck Victorian gold!

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Flats
Wear them for: Medieval (5-14th century), Renaissance to Stuart (14th century to 1630), Regency (1790-1832), and Victorian (1832-1860)

My Pair:

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Green Velvet Semi-Flats
My flats aren’t perfectly flat (they have a 1/2 inch heel), but they have a nice high vamp and rounded-point toe that works well with lots of different costumes. Plus, they are comfy. I bought them second-hand for $2 with Regency costuming in mind. You can see them in action (sort of) in “Transforming Edwardian Nightwear into Regency Daywear.”

Flats can be as basic or fancy as the occasion demands. Really, you could pretty much costume every era with flat shoes. There are small nuances for different eras– the Medieval poulaines, Tutor cowmouths, Regency’s knife-sharp pointed toes, and squared Victorian slippers— but a gently rounded toe will get you through almost every era without trouble. Flat shoes can also very easily be made at home if you’re feeling crafty! The only caveat for flats is that they shouldn’t show “toe cleavage” over the top of the vamp. Also, make sure they fit over stockings (stockings can help hide toe cleavage in a pinch as well!). Almost any color or decoration will work depending on your outfit, but a good leather or satin flat in a natural tone will work through more eras. Simple ankle boots made of leather or cloth can work for all of the eras listed above, too! In college, I had a pair of flat Rocket Dog ankle boots that worked well for medieval. It was heart rending when they wore out.

Extant Examples (too many to count, but here are a few):

Medieval
Saxon Shoe, 6th-9th century
and
Child’s Ankle Boot, circa 1350-1400

Besides flat slippers, flat-soled ankle boots were nearly universal. You can make reproductions of Medieval shoes from leather if you plan to do lots of medieval costuming.

Renaissance
Slashed Leather Shoe, circa 1500-1550
and
Slashed (finished with buttonhole edges) Velvet Shoes, circa 1550-1575

Slashed shoes matched the Renaissance trend for slashed sleeves and other garments. Just as a sleeve’s slashes allowed luxurious poufs of fabric to show through, slashed shoes allowed brightly colored stockings to peek out. All those slashes would fill your shoe with pebbles in no time! These slashed shoes were for the rich nobles who did not have to walk or work in the dust often. Lower-class shoes looked much as they had since ancient times.

Regency
Spangled Silk Shoes, circa 1793-98
and
Leather Walking Boots, circa 1795-1815

If you love wearing flats, this is your era! Heels (except the tiniest kitten heels) were out of fashion. Ankle boots were gaining popularity again after being completely out of fashion in the 17th and 18th century and now had front laces. Flat shoes of this era and the Victorian era could be made in leather or cloth by a craftsman or at home. In 1790-1810, pointed shoes were in style. They start transitioning to square toes around 1820.

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Early to Mid Victorian
Cotton and Silk Shoes, circa 1845-60
and
Silk Satin Boots, circa 1830-1850

Shoes during the first half of Queen Victoria’s reign rarely had heels and were generally made with a very noticeable square toe. However, since many women made their shoes at home from patterns out of fashion magazines, middle and lower class shoes, especially for daytime wear, are usually more rounded.

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Going Beyond the 3 Shoes

While these three shoes will let me wiggle by in nearly every fashion from 1590 to now, it is a very limited shoe wardrobe. It’s better to think of these three shoes as three shoe types instead. I’ve collected a few variations of each shoe type for specific outfits, like this pair I plan to use when I finally get my Edwardian dress project off the ground:

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These 1990s Purple Pumps were $4 at Goodwill.
I think I may have a “thing” for suede shoes…

These pumps are a variation of the first type of shoe in this list–the Low-Heel Mary Jane–with a bit of the second type–Pointed-Toe Louis Heels–mixed in for a good dose of Edwardian spice! As soon as you learn to recognize the major characteristics of historical footwear, you won’t feel as overwhelmed when you’re digging through shelf after shelf of shoes because you’ll be able to instantly judge whether the shape is historically appropriate or not. After that, all the little nuances like materials, decoration, and color fall into place easily!