The stocking has an established place in the contemporary lexicon of erotic imagery. Elmer Batters, an American photographer, dedicated his life’s work to documenting thousands of women in their stockinged feet. Stockinged women offer one of the most powerful images of modern female glamour and provide for the marketing of sexual allure.
The stocking was not always considered a sexual symbol. The earliest known example of a knitted sock, flat-cut and seamed at the back, was found in Egypt, where both knitting and weaving are thought to have originated. There is some debate as to whether hand-knitting was introduced to Europe by Christian missionaries, sea traders, or Arabs who, after conquering Egypt in 641 C.E., made their way to Spain. What is known is that it was widely established throughout Europe as a domestic skill by the thirteenth century. The majority of stockings were made from wool, although silk was commonplace for the aristocratic and landed gentry, and were viewed as a covering for the legs that was particularly practical for the climate.
It was the development of the first knitting frame, by Reverend William Lee in Nottingham in 1589, that heralded an era of mechanical production that, along with Marc Isambard Brunel’s circular-knitting machine (developed in 1816), was to transform the stocking from practical covering to erotic emblem. Lee’s knitting frame took production out of the home, improved and standardized quality, and stimulated a demand for stockings that were an extension of the fashionable consumer’s wardrobe.
The introduction of rayon in 1884, a cellulose-fiber material invented in France, changed production in a radical way. Rayon dominated the market for substitute silk stockings, facilitating widespread availability at an affordable price, until the invention of nylon, a more realistic alternative patented by DuPont in 1937. The first nylons were introduced in the United States in May 1940; four million pairs were sold in the first four days.
By the 1960s, the fully-fashioned, “one-size-fits-all” stocking began to outpace the flat-cut, classic seamed stocking, propelled by the introduction in 1958 of stretch Lycra. In addition, Lycra almost completely dispensed with the suspender belt as “roll-ons,” early versions of tights, were developed. A British company, Bear Brand, first experimented with tights; by the arrival of the miniskirt in the early 1960s, tights were popular and widely available. Only the introduction of the “hold-up,” a stocking with elasticized tops, breathed some life into the stocking market in the mid-1980s.
Fashion from 1400 to 1900
Men were the principal innovators in stocking fashions during the first few centuries of their introduction to Europe, bright colors accentuating the calves, with cross-garters tied at the knee and ankles embellished with embroidered “clocks” or motifs. In the early Georgian period, women’s stockings were woven in complex patterns with intricate embroidery. By 1740, formal dress dictated a plainer white stocking that dominated fashionable evening wear until the 1880s.
“What are the qualities essential to feminine allure? What is it that attracts and holds the eye of the male? Let me give you a hint. It begins at the tip of the toes and runs to the top of the hose … legs and feet” (Batters, p. 10).
In the 1860s, hemlines began to rise and the white stocking was covered in candy-colored riots of spots and stripes; even tartan prints were used to honor Queen Victoria’s passion for Scotland. By 1880, they were emblazoned with swallows, butterflies, flowers, and snakes and dyed in rich reds and pale yellows, although the end of the century saw color give way to practical black as women increasingly joined the workplace.
Fashion and Retailing from 1900 to 2003
Women’s magazines and mail-order catalogs provided manufacturers with new opportunities to introduce an ever-increasing array of stockings to an interested public. Thousands of small haberdashers were joined by department stores in major cities boasting dedicated hosiery sections. Positive magazine editorial became increasingly important in the aggressive marketing of hosiery products, as women’s consumer power continued to grow.
The advent of the cinema heightened the appeal, and facilitated the marketing of stockings. Film stars like Betty Grable propelled the sleek, stockinged leg to iconic status-and it was an attainable glamour. In tandem, packaging design took on all the qualities of gift-wrapped candy-lined paper boxes tied with a bow made stockings a desirable gift. Brands such as Aristoc, launched in the 1920s, Wolford (1946), and Pretty Polly (1950s), are still major players in the hosiery market in the twenty-first century, principally by playing on the glamorous associations of their product-and the idea of womanhood as object of masculine desire, a sensual package waiting to be unwrapped.
The sleek, seamed black stocking was synonymous with postwar fashion, and a focal point for Christian Dior’s “New Look” in Paris in 1947. It was another designer, Mary Quant, who revolutionized hosiery fashions a decade later-and signaled the downfall of the stocking as a standard mass-market product. Targeting the new teen, Quant commissioned lacy and patterned tights, emblazoned with her daisy logo, that flattered the miniskirt she made famous in 1963 and expressed the feelings of vibrancy and emancipation that characterized the times. In contrast, by 1971 stockings, now stigmatized as a masculine fetish, held only 5 percent of the market.
As women of all ages turned toward the comfort of tights, lingerie designers who marketed the suspender and stocking did so increasingly as an erotic statement. Of these, the best known is Janet Reger in the United Kingdom and La Perla in Italy. Launching her business at the same time as Quant, Janet Reger appealed to women’s desire to look and feel sexy.
For Elmer Batters (and many others), the eroticism of the stocking and suspender belt lies in the lines they create, framing the female body, and the consideration in dressing that they imply. The stocking’s eroticism is, however, a relatively recent development in its history. Women’s stockings were not publicly seen until the reign of Charles II, and, as practical coverings, held few erotic connotations until well into the eighteenth century.
It was in performance that the stocking took on an erotic charge; the art of striptease pivoted on the deliberate, prolonged undressing of the female form. Not coincidentally, the “Naughty Nineties” (1890-1900)-the decade of the cancan and the Moulin Rouge-defined the stocking as an erotic symbol. The rustle of petticoats against silk stockings came to signify the repressed sexual energy of the times. For respectable ladies, it was dances like the waltz and the polka, the Charleston and the tango that allowed them to flash gentlemen a glimpse of a silk-clad ankle.
During World War II, American GI’s with a secure supply of nylon stockings frequently deployed them as part of their courtship rituals. The cinema and the pinup did most to uphold the allure of stockinged feet in the 1950s (Betty Page is one of the most iconic figures of the period), continuing into the 1970s and 1980s. It was another performer, Madonna, who was to alter the stocking’s erotic connotations, liberating it as a symbol of masculine desire as the stocking “acquired the force of a manifesto … no longer a symbol of slavery,… it announced the liberation of the dominatrix” (Néret, p. 18). It was a trend, begun by Reger in the 1960s, and perpetuated by British lingerie brand Agent Provocateur in the 1990s, toward lingerie, and in particular the stocking and suspender belt, as a positive, feminine choice. In the twenty-first century, the stocking has come to symbolize “a superior kind of woman, bold enough to exploit her assets … a new concept which has made the notion of the ‘woman as sex object’ obsolete”.