Stockings… Naughty or Nice?

Stockings! They’re our favourite burlesque legwear – and an iconic essential of pin up art and burlesque performance, plus with everyone about to get their eager mits on the Christmas version, we thought it would be a topical time to write about the history of the burlesque stocking…

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Image London Burlesque Festival

Early Origins

The origins of foot covering probably come from cavemen who lived in cold climates, where skins would have been tied around the feet. Very attractive – we’re quite partial to a bit of skin, here! These skins would have been used as a lining to shoe/boot type items, moving upwards to more the more ‘sophisticated’ wraps of matted hair. Can you picture the elegance? In ancient times, comfort clearly came first.

In Ancient Greece and Rome, foot covering became wraps of woven fabric or leather and it’s these times where the earliest stocking arrives courtesy of those decadent types, the Egyptians. An intact sock that dates from between 300 and 500AD was found at the archaeological site of Oxyrhynchus (on the Nile, about midway between Luxor and Cairo). These socks were made using a method called nalbinding (needle binding, kind of like crocheting) and had a forked toe so a sandal could be worn. Yes, the sandal and sock combo (that one that gets us ‘excited’ at beaches over the summer) is not the invention of modern man! The Vikings also developed a version of these (ooh! Rugged Norsemen! Beards! Wearing, er, sandals and socks…). Later, when the knitting loom was invented in the late 1500s, knitted socks became more popular, especially after the early 1900s when circular knitting frames were advanced, signalling the mass production.

Fabric Stockings Through History

The Coptics and early Christians of the fifth century AD wore puttees over their feet to symbolise purity and as we head towards the tenth century, foot coverings were getting longer and were beginning to be made from more refined fabrics such as linens (well, for those wealthy enough to afford them!) and held up with garters to stop them falling down. Garters? Now we’re starting to talk our language…

“Women’s stockings weren’t as on display as those belonging to men, seeing the flesh at the top of a stocking was considered carnal and is possibly where the first stocking fetish comes from.”

Important people of society, such as royals and religious leaders wore stockings made from fine silks, which had built in ties to hold them up. They were often embroidered with opulent patterns. People of lower class, however, often adopted hosen or chausses made from a colourful woven fabric, cut on the bias to allow a stretch which they would tie to other garments or around a belt on the waist, kind of an early suspender belt, worn over brais (a nappy-like pant item).

For the gents, Tudor times and onwards saw more sophisticated leg wear still, with stockings, joined hosen and socks being fashioned out of finer fabrics. In the seventeenth century, the focus was firmly on the calf area with breeches a popular men’s fashion; tighter, more fitted stockings (those who could afford them wore the fine silk knitted variety) accentuated the “well-turned leg” and calf muscle (which was sometimes padded for extra effect – again, padding for extra effect is not a new thing!) – highly attractive in the 1600s, made all the more prominent with the heeled shoe!

Hidden by long hemlines, women’s stockings weren’t as on display as those belonging to men, seeing the flesh at the top of a stocking was considered carnal and is possibly where the first stocking fetish comes from – those naughty sorts! In most cases, the woman’s stocking followed the design of the long socks of their male counterparts with linens, silks and woven fabrics being held up on the leg with garter ribbons tied around.

Burlesque Stockings

Image London Burlesque Festival

Now here’s where it gets a bit more racy! We love the Victorian times; those hourglass shapes, tightly strung corsets (pass us the smelling salts in case we faint!) and for those who could afford them, stockings. Now even more refined, the stocking came with a welt at the top, usually made of lace, which would help them stay up and with the invention of elastic in 1820, garters became more sophisticated.

By the time we hit the roaring ’20s, and the rise of hemlines, ladies legs were beginning to get a lot of attention, having been covered for the most part of history until now. Before this time, stockings were mainly worn for comfort and warmth but with the rise of the flapper came an opportunity for leg wear to become fashionable and flirtatious! While fabrics continued to include silk, cotton and wool (very itch-inducing and not very sexy), the 20s stocking-wearer now had a new, man-made fabric: rayon. This new fabric hugged the leg for the first time but was quite a shiny (some ladies powdered their legs to matte the shine) and highly flammable – be careful with that Charleston or you’ll be setting the dance floor alight for all the wrong reasons! Rayon stockings were held up by garter belts, garters or fashionably rolled to just above the knee and now came in “flesh” colours! You too could pretend your legs were – gasp – naked!

In 1930, workers at the American DuPont Company invented nylon, and this new fabric, marketed “as strong as steel and as fine as a spider’s web” was used mainly in the surgical industry. Nylon stockings made their first appearance at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, going into production soon after and the following year, as word spread that the sheen of a nylon would make the leg look beautiful, women were queuing around the block to get their hands on some nylons. Much like the earlier medieval hosen and linen stockings, fully fashioned nylons were joined at the back with a seam (which became a fashion statement, still en-vogue today), and stocking etiquette stated crooked seams were a real no-no! All that changed during the war years of austerity and ration books and with necessities at short supply, women took to painting their legs with gravy browning or cold tea or pencilling on seams on the back of their legs to make it appear they were wearing silk or nylon stockings.

Stockings haven’t changed so much in modern times, although fabrics have, and thanks to the advent of modern materials we now have stockings that not only stay up by themselves but last longer without laddering. That said, some of us entertainers still prefer the float of a vintage silk stocking as opposed to the heavy ping of a Primarni cheapy.

Quick facts: 

The term hosiery, used for tights etc, is derived form the Medieval Hose and Hosen

The Christmas Stocking: Legend is that a wealthy nobleman lost all his money and was too poor to marry off his daughters. There was no dowry, so they were doomed to an unmarried life of prostitution and slavery. It goes that the generous bishop St Nicholas of Smyrna (271-350ad), troubled over their fate, tossed a gold coin into their window as they slept, which landed in one of their stockings which was hung up to dry by the fire.

Denier: The term we use to determine how sheer the stockings originates from the weight and thickness of the yarn the stockings are made from – the higher the denier, the more opague and thick the tights… Here’s the root: 1 denier = 9000 metres of yarn weighs 1 gram, so the average 15 denier tights have probably been made from 135,000 meters of yarn!

Lilly Laudanum Burlesque MagazineWinner of the World Burlesque Games 2015 British Crown, Lilly Laudanum performs regularly across the
UK and is best known for her portrayal of comedy character acts with a historical edge.  Performing for 20+ years, Lilly has fronted many bands, been a character model and actress and enjoyed a four-year stint at The London Dungeon, where she performed and ran the actors company. She is also a professional costumier, belly dancer, resident performer and producer of the’ Bluestocking Lounge in South Wales.


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