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Stems: A History of Hosiery

Now a way to scandalize the leg by means of veiling it, stockings had a long, rough journey on their way to getting everyone horny.

Stylist: Hilary Olson; Model: Zumi
Photos by Logan White 


Hilary Olson stockings, Topshop shoes

Now a way to scandalize the leg by means of veiling it, stockings had a long, rough journey on their way to getting everyone horny. Here, we trace hosiery’s history, from the foot of a mummy to the legs of barbarians and settlers and statesmen, creating new models for industry, causing violence and riots, and leading us into a freewheeling new world.
Vintage cape, American Apparel underwear, Yelete tights, Hilary Olson stockings, Leg Avenue garter belt


THE EARLY DAYS
In the West, wrapping thin strips of animal skin around one’s legs was the zygote of modern hosiery. This was a hot-and-cold phenomenon, going in and out of fashion for centuries before knit hosiery became stylish in the mid-1500s. Meanwhile, Egyptians were wearing knit socks around the fourth or fifth century AD, fashioning them to fit around the heel 1,000 years before England caught on. If this isn’t definitive proof that they were taught by the aliens, I don’t know what’s going to finally convince you.

Fun fact: When the Saxons ruled England, the Saxon monk was forbidden to celebrate Mass in bare legs, so he wound fine linen leg bindings around them. By this point, Roman authority had already peaked and collapsed in England. The clergy in Rome, clearly perverts since day one, wore silk stockings.
Vintage jacket, Haider Ackermann tank top, Trashy Lingerie hot pants, Hilary Olson stockings, Leg Avenue garter belt, vintage boots


MATERIALS
A hundred years after Jesus died, Europeans began using animal hair instead of skins to cover their legs. Poet and epigrammatist M. Valerius Martialis spoke lovingly of the “udo,” as it was called: “Wool did not supply these, but the beard of the he-goat. Your feet will be able to take refuge, in cloth made of goat’s hair.” This majestic he-goat came from a river in Africa. The first nongoat hosiery came from tiny, peculiar sheep in the Sherwood Forest that had wool with the longest filaments anyone had ever seen. Silk became popular in 1560, when Queen Elizabeth was presented a pair of fine silk stockings she loved so much she refused to wear anything else from then on. In England’s American colonies, a series of confusing laws restricted the wool trade, so they found some hemp in the swamps and knit early American stoner stockings. In 1939 the first pair of nylon pantyhose was unleashed on the world and thousands of women lined up to get a pair. Soon, no one gave a shit about silk.
Vintage jacket, Haider Ackermann tank top, Trashy Lingerie hot pants, Hilary Olson stockings, Leg Avenue garter belt, vintage boots


THE INDUSTRIAL STOCKING SCENE
Reverend William Lee’s invention of the stocking frame, a hosiery-knitting machine, in 1589 pretty much eradicated hand-knit hosiery. By 1811, mechanization had replaced hand-craftsmanship almost entirely, and on top of that, hosiery manufacturers were charging stockingers to rent the frames they worked on. Bullshit was finally called: A group of pissed-off laborers assembled in Sherwood Forest, supposedly led by the probably mythical/nonexistent Ned Ludd. For a year, they attacked stocking frames with hammers in waves of violence, destroying the machines in an attempt to tear down the industry and return to the living they made by handicraft. Thus was born the Luddite movement.

On Valentine’s Day, 1812, the government passed a bill that made breaking industrial machines punishable by death. With the rowdy artisans quelled, making one pair of stockings became a zillion-part process involving all kinds of complicated contracts regarding seaming, binding, weaving, and rent, from machine’s needles to the space the frame sat in.
Bebe bodysuit, Christian Dior garter belt, Hilary Olson stockings, Zumi Rosow jewelry


COLOR
From the mid-1300s to around 1550, stockings, or “nether-stocks,” were flaunted on men’s bodies like plumage on beautiful birds. Pieces of silk, cotton, linen, or wool were cut by tailors to fit the leg and thigh, short or long, puffed and slashed or embroidered at the top or around the ankles, and in a zillion different colors. Yellow stockings, like yellow snow, signified trouble, at least from 1552 to 1601-ish. Not only were they worn by invalid children at Christ’s Hospital, they also referenced gender confusion, and even eunichism, thanks to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. After 1550, the mix ’n’ match approach to stockings fell out of style, and from 1670 to 1680, English people were such nerds about monochromatic dressing that hosiery was custom-made and dye-sampled to match the accompanying garment. In 17th-century Paris, however, stockings could still be obtained in 50 different colors, all bearing their own labels: Amorous Desire, Sad Friend, Lost Time, Mortal Sin.
Vintage cape, American Apparel underwear, Yelete tights, Hilary Olson stockings, Leg Avenue garter belt


TIGHTS
Guess where those Brooklyn girls walking around in oversize t-shirts and shredded-up tights got their style inspiration? In the mid-1300s, tights were all over Western Europe, multicolored, sewn with innumerable stripes and patterns, and worn with short flared jackets. Obviously, the church did not approve of this, as you could see every muscle and tendon of the wearer’s legs and ass. Flouting all common decency, the youth of the time not only persisted in wearing this discordant outfit but also shaved half their heads.
Marlies Dekkers bra, Victoria’s Secret underwear, Leg Avenue garter belt, Hilary Olson stockings, Versace earrings, Topshop shoes


LAW
Leg bindings were held in contempt as a sign of barbarism in late third-century Rome. If you were busted wearing stockings, the penalty was eternal servitude and confiscation of all your worldly possessions. However, in a hundred years, everything was fine. In 1555, a sumptuary act was passed in England decreeing that nobody but aldermen and mayors could wear silk stockings, upon penalty of a ten-pound fine and imprisonment. In 1656, the court of Massachusetts ordered every idle woman and child whose hands weren’t broken to spin yarn, much of which was used for hosiery. Men wearing women’s clothing, including knit stockings, became illegal in Connecticut in 1796. But leather stockings—basically chaps—were A-OK for men, undoubtedly beginning the leather-daddy trend. But that’s a whole other history.