Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Late 18th Century French Fashions - Stockings

I adore vintage fashions and am especially intrigued by those items not usually seen in old fashion plates such as undergarments. I was thrilled to come across an interesting fashion plate from the 1770 - 1780's showing quite a bit of the ladies stocking and the ribbon garter she is about to use to anchor her legwear back in place.  

Naturally I wanted to have a bit of fun with the image, so I  created this fun scene 
showing her trying to entice her escort in a peek.

"Trying not to Peek" by EKDuncan using vintage 18th century  fashion plates

A bit about 18th Century Stockings
Since undergarments aka "unmentionables" were not freely discussed or shown in print for polite society there seems to be a bit of speculation about where a lady would "tie" her stockings.
Stocking length of a few inches above the knee seems to be the general concensus on the correct length for a ladies stocking; it is the point of where the garter was placed that seems to be in question. It is widely believed that women used a buckled garter of some type, or a ribbon to tie their stockings off, just below the knee or possibly just above knee.  My guess is a lady would "tie off" at the place that was the most comfortable and that which had the least amount of risk for letting the stocking fall about her feet as she moved about.

Anchoring just below the knee was a benefit since the calf is generally the larger part of the lower leg and by tying off the stocking just below the knee; the fleshy part of the calf would assist in keeping the stocking from dropping below that point.  Anchoring above the knee would require a tighter tying off of the stocking so it would not easily drop or slide below the knee; however if a stocking was not well "fitted" to your leg this method would have had a greater chance of falling out of place.

My vote would be for placing my garter below the knee; since this would allow the best chance 
that my stockings would not drop to the ground as I walked or moved about.

Risque images and paintings of the time generally show a ladies stocking being tied off just above the knee or slightly higher.  It is possible that artists did this for the titillation factor of showing more leg rather than to depict the historically accurate placement of a ladies stocking garter.  Elastic and spandax type materials did not exist at this time. Knit stockings relaxed and stretched as you moved around causing them to shift which is why garters were required. Without the advantage of  elasticized garters like those decoratively worn in weddings today; the 18th century garter was usually a tied piece of ribbon or a buckling strap made from leather or decorated cloth.

Note - It was not till laterer in Victorian times that ladies stockings covered higher into the thigh area due to the garters extending down from the corset itself  rather than encircling a ladies leg.
Attaching stockings to a garter belt would be the most modern version us 21st century ladies would be familiar with; but this was not the case prior to Victorian times - just in case you were wondering.

Here are a few artistic images showing a ladies stockings and garters from the 18th century.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard - The Swing 1767
We get a glimpse of ladies stocking, tied off with a ribbon just above the knee.
This is actually a very provocative painting for the period.
Notice where the gent is sitting and just imagine what kind of view he has.
(remember during this period in time women did not wear undies, 
bloomers, pantaloons... I think you get the picture. - grins)

Francois Boucher-La Toilette - Garter 1742
In the above painting we see a lady tying off her stocking above the knee with a ribbon.  
Notice she does this in a double wrap style around her leg.
Here again this is an artist interpretation of a lady at her toilette.

She is dressing for the day since she still wears a bed jacket and I don't know about you but I don't think I'd put my shoes on before tying up my stockings. I have to assume a bit of the titillation factor was the point of this piece considering the provocative placement of her legs and that she already has her heels on.

Close up of the Stockings and shoes from the above painting "La Toilette" by Francois Boucher
 My previous post "Showing a Bit of Ankle" has several fashion plates where the hemline on the dresses are at or above the ankle.  Due to this fashion trend of shorter skirts; stockings and shoes became a more noticeable fashion accessory. More care was taken with these items since they were easily viewed due to the shorter skirts and considerably more money was spent in acquiring these items.  Generally a lady would have worn white stockings or those in a color that matched her ensemble.  Pastels such as pink and powder blue were very much in favor.

William Hogarth - A Rake's Progress - The Rose Tavern a brothel in Covent Gardens
This is a part of the painting showing one of the "working girls" with her skirts pulled back
showing her garter and stockings.  These show stockings tied off above the knee as well as a bit of exposed thigh to tease the viewer.

(If you are wondering about the "patches" on her face - patches were commonly used during this time period for a bit of fun and to add beauty marks. They were also frequently used to disguise marks on a person caused by "the pox" aka syphilis - which was a very common STD in the 18th - 19th century, especially for prostitutes. It was also one of the top killers of men at the time.)

On a brighter note - Notice the decoration on her stockings these are referred to as "clocks" and were an expensive addition to have on your stockings.  These probably cost her dearly and so she continues to wear them even-though they have holes and tears in them. 

Mid 18th century Stockings with "clocks", Shoes and French Buckles - Bata Shoe Museum Toronto
Here is an example of actual stockings with fancy clocks as well as shoes and buckles from close to the time of Marie Antoinette.  Notice the slightly "fitted" look of them in the calf area.  This should have helped to keep the upper portion of these stockings from slipping below the the calf.

I'm trying to spot evidence of where they would have tied off but I'm seeing the possibility
in the areas both above the knee and below; however there seems to be a significant amount of creasing on the stocking tucked under the top one.  Those bunched up creases just above the calf area could be from garter placement below the knee; but your guess is as good as mine if that is the case.


Now for the images I used to create my ArtScene  "Trying Not to Peek"

"Trying not to Peek" by EKDuncan using vintage 18th century  fashion plates

I used two french fashion plates from the late 18th Century to create my scene.

Late 18th Century French Fashion Plate
(I flipped and slightly altered this image to use in my scene)
Striped stockings were a high fashion accessory for men at this time this fashion plate displays a gentleman all decked out in the latest without crossing the boundaries into being a "Peacock".

Back in the times of Marie Antoinette a man of extreme fashion would have been called a "Macaroni" the equivalent in the Regency would have been a "Dandy".  For the most part in either time period a man who was refereed to as a "Peacock of Fashion" was also having his masculinity placed into question, so there was a fine line between being a man of fashion and being a peacock.

French Fashion Plate showing a lady about to tie her stockings in place with a ribbon
This is the original late 18th century fashion plate I started with to create the lady in my "Take a Peek" scene.  I removed her background and then created a variety of color options to play with.

Here are several png colorized versions I created using the above image.

(Notice the stocking color changes to match each outfit)

png version of the original fashion plate

EKD Periwinkle Version

EKD Rose Version

EKD Green Version - used in the scene

EKD - Purple Version

EKD - Blue Version with Green Feathers

EKD - Grey Version with Purple Feathers

I hope you have enjoyed my take on stockings during this time period
as well as this great image that shows quite a bit of leg for a fashion plate of its day.

I'll be back a little later on with more great French Fashion plates
from the time of Marie Antoinette.

Till then...


  1. Hello,

    Very interesting article! We often forget that old paintings are an important source of information on the history of fashion.

    In the engraving, it seems that man does not dare look at the lady and the lady seems to watch him the corner of his eye; it's funny.

    Beautiful colors!
    Many thanks!

    1. Hi Sylvie - I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Yes, I think old paintings can be a good source of information on fashion and I love staring at them in search of minor details.

      Yes the fashion plate of the lady readjusting her stocking does have that "coquettish" look as if she hopes some daring man might take a look. What a naughty girl - don't you just lover her.


  2. nicely done! entertaining and informative. if my shoes are buckled or tied I put them on before my stays, usually immediately after changing my shift and tying or buckling my garters(I only ever do them under the knee as I am completely unable to walk about with them tied above without fear of the dropping uselessly about my ankles.) As the lady in question is wearing mules/slides it seems merely a matter of preference. I do love seeing the "lady's" stays in the lower right corner of "the Rakes Progress." Thank you for this lovely bit of fun.

    1. Welcome Mad Anne Bailey

      I'm glad you liked that post and thanks so much for letting me know your period "dressing" regimen. It seems to be the preference of many who wear period costume to secure their stockings below the knee. I would think this to be the most sensible way as well - grins.

      I like your blog and look forward to reading more.