December temperatures are sending those of us in the East running off to our sock drawer and wondering if those wool tights we bought last year are now a) fashionable, b) hole-free and c) warm enough to stem the wind. It’s fitting, then, that costume expert and WVFC contributor Helen Uffner decided to look into the origins of all that leg-warming.
For the final installment of her Hose Me Down! series, however, readers will have to go to the lively Uffner Vintage Clothing site. Meanwhile, feast on the controversial tale of those who fought so that our legs might be covered. –Ed.
Men’s socks were originally made of two pieces of woven wool cut on the bias for flexibility.
Initially separate legs held up by garters, they began to be seamed up the center-back and became known as “hose” (or “hosen”): close-fitting leggings made of cloth worn by both men and women.
Up to the 15th century, women’s hose came only to the knee, but men’s extended to the thigh, or even waist, as you will read later in the series. Women’s hose tended to be hidden by their clothing because upper-class women didn’t allow their undergarments to be painted in the 1500s. So most painting references we have of that period are of the working class.
By the 16th century, everybody wore hose except the poorest of the poor, who are depicted in paintings wearing rags around their feet or are even barefoot.
It is chronicled in a British journal called Wriothesley’s that when Henry VIII’s marriage to Jane became public, he met two beautiful sisters who made him sigh and say he was “sorry that he had not seen them before he was married.”
One of the sisters was Anne Basset, who became lady-in-waiting to Henry’s wife Jane (and rumored to later become one of the King’s many mistresses). In 1536, Anne wrote to her mother, Lady Honor Lisle: “Madame, I would beseech you to send me…some pairs of hosen, and a little money for my devotions.”
Her mother replied: “I send you by the bearer money…hose-cloths, because the hosier here knoweth not the bigness of your leg.”
Men’s hose, of course, were completely visible and were either tied to a doublet (a snug-fitting buttoned jacket) or to the points of white linen underpants (called braies) shaped like long, baggy diapers that over time became shorter.
Early braies had a high waist that was rolled down over a drawstring waist. Hose were secured to the braies by points, which were cords or ties with metal tips that often attached to a belt within the braies.
Before the 16th century, the word “breeches” applied to both outer garments and undergarments, but by the end of that century hose separated into two garments. Men’s stockings covering the lower half of the leg were called “netherstocks” or “nether hose,” and what we now think of as pants became “upperstocks,” known now as breeches or trunk hose (very short breeches just covering the trunk of the body with full-length hose was worn beneath them).
In 1564, Englishman William Rider accidentally saw a pair of knitted worsted (yarn spun from wool, combed to lay the fibers smooth & parallel) imported stockings at the home of an Italian merchant from Mantua. He borrowed them, copied them and presented the Earl of Pembroke the first worsted stockings ever made in England.
The word “worsted” is said to be derived from the village of WORSTEAD in the English countryside of Norfolk, where Flemish weavers had migrated to since the Conquest. Though worsted knit stockings were actually “invented” in Scotland in the 15th century, the art then moved to the continent before being “re-discovered” in England.
By the time Elizabeth I took the throne in 1558, knitting by hand had become a widespread craft practiced by all social classes in England, and cloth stockings all but disappeared.
Around 1560, Queen Elizabeth’s “silk lady” Mistress Montegue presented her with black silk knit stockings, and thus began the Queen’s known love of knitted silk stockings, as recorded in Stowe’s Chronicle:
Mistress Montague: “I made them very carefully of purpose only for your Majesty, and seeing these please you so well, I will presently get more in hand.”
“Do so,” said the Queen, “for indeed I like silk stockings so well, because they are pleasant, fine and delicate, that henceforth I will wear no more cloth stockings.”
Men’s stockings were also popular but expensive: The Earl of Leicester’s records list “one pair of knit hose for your lordship: 53 shillings, 4 pence,” but wool was “item, for 2 pair of knit hose for your lordship: 4 shillings, 8 pence.”
Then came the knitting machine – which, while poo-pooed by the Queen of England, still changed everything.
The first ”stocking machine” was invented around 1589 by an English clergyman, William Lee of Nottinghamshire. Legend tells us that Lee had fallen in love with a young village lady who sadly didn’t return his affections, so consumed was she with teaching students the womanly art of knitting worsted stockings. He became determined to invent a machine that could knit, thereby making her obsession passé and her free time only devoted to him.
Lee left his curacy to devote years toward creating this new “stocking frame” machine and promptly sought the patronage of Queen Elizabeth. Alas, she turned down Lee’s invention, stating that she was not only upset at the rough results, but its use would deprive the poor hand-knitters of their occupation and might add to the growing hordes of unemployed. Though the Queen still maintained her love of silk stockings, by 1577 she switched to wearing only knit worsted hose to support the local Norwich knitters. The Queen wrote to a lord of the realm:
Had Mr. Lee made a machine that would have made silk stockings, I should, I think, have been somewhat justified in granting him a patent for that monopoly, which would have effected only a small number of my subjects, but to enjoy the exclusive privilege of making stockings for the whole of my subjects, is too important to be granted to any individual.
The Rev. Lee continued to tinker with his machine and was continually refused. Five years after the Queen’s death, he presented the new King of England, James VI of Scotland, with his latest samples – this time, silk stockings. Remember: James was from Scotland, which invented knitting! He took no interest. After all, his own mother, Mary Stuart (right), wore hand-knit stockings to her execution: “Jersey hose white under socks of worsted watchett (sea blue) clocked with solver, edged at the tops with silver; both knitted.”
In 1605, The Duke of Sully, Henri IV of France’s astute minister, took a look at the invention and suggested Lee take his creation to France, where he was personally welcomed by the King. He set up shop in Rouen with his brother, eight workmen and eight machines, but alas, more bad luck ensued. It is said that the day he was to receive his patent, the King was stabbed to death by a fanatic religious Catholic, and Lee’s patronage was immediately withdrawn.
Spain at the time was already providing the second wife of Henri IV, Marie de’ Medici, with exquisitely crafted purple, red and orange (her favorite colors) silk stockings decorated with the French lilies or the Medici coat of arms. She withdrew Lee’s protection; he eventually died in extreme poverty, alone, in Paris. His burial place is unknown. Lee’s brother continued his quest back in England, and eventually the use of looms gradually increased until the manufacturing of stockings became a thriving national industry and England became the hosiery center of the world.
Several decades after Lee was turned down by Queen Elizabeth, the Framework Knitter’s Company succeeded in its petition to Cromwell for charter rights as “the promoter and inventor of the art and mystery or Trade of Frame-work knitting or making of silk stockings or other work in a frame or engine.” And in 1663, the Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters was granted a Royal Charter and continues to exist to this day. It is said that William Lee is remembered, pictured together with the object of his affections (thought to have become his wife) and a knitting frame, on the coat of arms of the Worshipful Company of Frame-Work-Knitters.
The technology was so guarded by England that by 1696, it was actually illegal to export a stocking-making loom, and anyone caught was fined 40 pounds (an immense sum at that time!) and had their equipment confiscated.
Pants were actually not a men’s fashion staple until after the 18th century, developing from the hose and breeches that men wore in the 15th through 18th centuries and even before that, tunics.
Twelfth-century tunics rose to knee-length, and men often wore loose-fitting above-knee cloth hose underneath that fastened to drawers or were held in place by leg bands. By about 1350, the hose became progressively tighter and even more fitted, and rose in length as the tunic shortened in length.
The shortened tunic eventually rose all the way to become the snug-fitting buttoned jacket called a doublet, which was worn from the late 14th century to the mid-17th century. Like many of today’s fashions, doublets were originally considered an undergarment: In medieval times they were worn under a tunic, only to ultimately become outerwear, not unlike many contemporary fashion trends.
The doublet was a padded garment for the upper body that narrowed at the waist, often had matching sleeves tied at the shoulders by points, and often flared at the hips to accentuate the man’s “ideal figure” at the time (hips were “IN!”). They attached by ties to breeches (which extended beyond the knee) and trunk hose (only as high as the mid-thigh).
In the 15th century, gentlemen could not catch even a glimpse of ladies’ stockings, but ladies happily had an unobstructed view of men’s hosed legs up to the top of their thigh, so men had to make their legs as attractive as possible. Doublets became shorter and tighter, and hose grew so much longer and higher that they ultimately had to be refitted for modesty by the attachment of a codpiece.
By the end of that century, the long, tightly worn hose became slightly puffed above the knee: They were stuffed with hair, rags or bran, padded and ballooned in size in order to stand puffed outward, like pumpkins.
Shorter versions of men’s hose were also padded, since not only hips but girth was de rigeur.
Even codpieces, which started out as a flap of fabric, grew in size to more “stylishly grander proportions” as the 16th century progressed. Henry VIII of England began padding his own codpiece, which caused a spiraling trend of larger and larger codpieces that ended only by the end of the 16th century. Legend has it that men of greater rank needed extra bleachers in the House of Parliament to accommodate the lords’ increasingly fashionable girth!
In 1516 alone, Henry VIII bought 175 pairs of satin shoes, velvet slippers and leather boots, wooing his women with his purple and crimson stockings made for him of yard-wide silk taffeta. Alas, woven silk had far less stretch than woven wool or knit, and thus conformed less to the leg and were less comfortable to wear.
At the time, the finest needles were being produced in Spain and Italy, allowing for more elegantly detailed work. Stocking importer and founder of the Royal Exchange, Sir Thomas Greshman, presented Henry VIII a “payre of long Spanish silke stockings, a luxurious article of raiment,” as a gift. At the time, this was a gift as worthy of a monarch’s acceptance as a jeweled crown today.
Women, of course, became positively mad for silk stockings! In Erondell’s 1605 book The French Garden “for English Ladyes and Gentlewomen” written in dialogue form, Lady Ri-Melaine calls, “Where be my stockens? Give me some clean sockes. I will have no woorsted hosen. Showe me my Carnation silk stockins.” Stockings were even buried with their royal owners: In 1562, Eleanora of Toledo ensured that her stockings were buried with her in her in her tomb; in 1603, two pair of stockings were found in the tomb of Duke Barnium XII of Brandenburg, Germany.
One of the writers of the pamphlets commonly distributed in 16th century England was a Londoner named Philip Stubbes (1555–1610). He was an Oxford- and Cambridge-educated strict Puritan who castigated social practices of the time that were unfit for “true Christians.”
Stubbes 1580s periodical “Anatomie of Abuses” was critical of the Elizabethan fashions, habits and sexual mores, and included a tart tirade against what he considered the shameful and costly craze of buying increasingly sheer and fancy stockings.“The time hath beene when one might have clothed all his body well for lesse then a pair of these neither-stocks will cost.“ Silk hose, he added, “have they nether-stocks to these gay hosen, not of cloth (though never so fine) for that is thought to (be) base, but of…silk thred, and such like. [Yet women] are not ashamed to wear hose of all kinds of changeable colours, as green, red, white, russet, tawny and else what not. These thin delicate hosen must be cunningly knit and curiously indented in every point with quirks, clocks, open seams and everything else accordingly.”
For the final phase in this sordid tale, please bookmark Uffner Vintage Clothing. Until the next installment arrives, on Helen’s blog you can also keep up on what celebrities are renting for what plays and movies, and other details on one of the most diverting small businesses we know. — Ed.