The history of the stocking highlights the early significant advancements that were made, not only in the area of manufacturing technology but in textile design. The developments and innovations made over time in technology and textile design of the 'humble' stocking have had far-reaching applications into many other areas. For instance, replacing silk with nylon as parachute material during World War 2. This collection charts the innovations in textile design from the use of natural to synthetic fibres and the effect that had on design, application, affordability and accessibility. As a social narrative, these stockings provide an insight into social, fashion and in some instances, cultural customs of the different periods represented.
It was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I that the first stocking machine was invented by vicar William Lee in Nottingham, England in the late 16th century. He was refused a patent as the Queen was disappointed with the coarse results. Up until the mid 1600s, the majority of stockings were hand-knitted but between 1650 and 1750, the stocking frame was gaining a competitive edge.
The early machines were unwieldy, costly to operate, and low yielding but by the 1760s, improvements to the original design resulted in the manufacture of machine-made lace and a finer fabric. The new technology required great mechanical skill and could produce superior silk stockings similar to the example included in the collection made for Queen Victoria in the 1840s.
By the mid 1800s, technical developments saw increased output at a cheaper price making the machine-made stocking more affordable for a mass market. By the 1880s, a fully automatic circular machine manufactured the stocking as a complete tube with the heel and toe closed.
Colour and decoration
Until the end of the 17th century, no attempt was made to make the stocking more decorative. As men and women took to wearing shoes instead of boots and clock seams (triangular piece or gore let in at the ankle of a stocking; often made in one piece with the stocking sole) were more visible, decorated clocks became fashionable. Embroidery as embellishment or contrasting colours in the gore clock saw the stocking transform from its utilitarian purpose to attaining fashion status. Most "chevening" (from the Anglo-Saxon "to finish") embroidery or open lacework was outsourced and done by hand. Hemlines and shoe fashion influenced the intricacy of the clock decoration. Clock decoration ranged from eye-catching, ornate and bold to subtle and feminine. In the 19th century, low-cut court shoes were perfect to display openwork lace fronts with the stocking coloured to harmonise with the dress.
The colour of stockings was influenced mostly by social mores of the times. Until the 1730s, colour complemented what one was wearing. During 1730s, the shift in fashion was from coloured stockings to white. From the mid 1820s, fashionable people wore shoes and stockings to match their dress. In the early 1800s pink stockings gave an impression of nudity and was frowned upon by many but by 1829 flesh coloured stockings were fashionable. With the stability of the new analine dyes, brightly coloured stockings became popular. The mid 1880s again saw the trend for both shoes and stockings to match the dress. Black was the most common colour in the early 1900s with 19 out of every 20 pairs black due to larger, dirtier towns, the wearing of leather footwear and more reliable dyes.
Traditionally stockings were made from linen, cotton or wool. Stockings made from silk was the most desirable fabric but was expensive and out of the range of most. By 1912, rayon stockings were mass marketed as "artificial" silk and provided a more affordable alternative to silk hosiery. Between the war years 1920-1939 seamless fully fashioned stockings were available but lack of fashioning (fully fashioned - stockings which are knitted flat then sewn together, having a seam) led to bunching and baggy ankles. Packaging and advertising became all important in the race for market share.
The invention of nylon, originally known as polymer 6.6, by DuPont in the 1930s was an affordable alternative to silk stockings. It was the first truly synthetic man-made fibre and revolutionised the stocking market at its retail debut in 1940. Nylon was transparent and had the look of expensive silk but was affordable and made the leg look smooth and shiny.
The 1960s saw many changes, with the most significant being the wide adoption of the seamfree stocking and the introduction of lycra by DuPont which allowed for more elasticity, strength and a much better fit. With the introduction of the mini skirt by designer Mary Quant in the 60s, the stocking and suspender gave way to the "all-in-one" pantyhose.
In the early 80s Dior launched a large range of coloured stockings called Diorella in every colour imaginable and "one size fits all". Lace tights and clocks made a comeback in the form of flowers, butterflies and diamantes and opaque black was back 'in'. The 90s has been the decade of revivals with just about every major style of the century reinterpreted.
A number of stockings included in the collection have diamond-shaped holes in the welting. These diamond shaped holes were originally required under English law as an indication of thread count, one hole for each thread. Long after this law was abandoned, manufacturers continued to add the diamonds to show quality. A number of stockings are marked with the "M" maker's mark of the I and R Morley firm, based in Nottingham. Stocking manufacturers began marking their goods in the late 1700s by knitting an initial on or just below the welt.
Highlights from the Beecher-Moore collection include a pair of silk stockings made for Queen Victoria, early artificial silk stockings, a pair of woollen stockings worn for sea bathing, and two pairs patterned with the faces of the four Beatles.
Acquisition documentation prepared by several assistant curators.