“Silks Black sewn silk stockings, long enough to be rolled. Those from Seville are more highly regarded than those from France; Short stockings of the same quality, not intended to be rolled, but rather for use with the golille outfit, which have since fallen out of fashion. Other silk stockings of all colours and all lengths, for both men and women: Stockings from Naples and Milan called punto, both for men (when not rolled), as well as for women and children. This type of stocking is made in Toledo in Seville and across Spain, but those from Milan are considered the best. These stockings are also produced in France, and they are without question the most beautiful and the best of them all, but since they are also the most expensive- and have the disadvantage of being too narrow from the calf down to the heel- they do not sell as quickly as the others. In the detailed listing of the assortment of the cargo earlier mentioned, we will see which colours are the most coveted, with red and blue generally being the most popular. Many of this type of stocking also comes from China, and although they are not as good quality or as beautiful as those from Spain, France, or Italy, sales of these have detrimental effects on the consumption of the European ones, since they are offered at a better price.” (Translated from Jean de Monségur, 1709, Chap. XXXVIII)
The V&A’s new fashion exhibition, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, presents over 200 garments dating from the mid-18th century to the present day.
The exhibition opens with a display of male and female underwear from the second half of the eighteenth century. Looking for something colourful to contrast with an array of white linen, we decided to include an eye-catching pair of hand embroidered, frame knitted, green and pink silk stockings. The stockings (V&A: T.156&A-1971), which were donated to the V&A in 1971 by Miss B. Hinton, have always been described in the Museum’s records as Spanish and dated to the mid-eighteenth century.
Sandy Black analysed the technique used to make stockings in her recent publication, Knitting: Fashion, Industry, Craft (V&A Publishing, 2012, p.25). The stockings are seamed at toe, under the sole of the foot and up the back of the leg. The green and pink sections are knitted together using the intarsia technique. The leg and foot of the stockings are green and the gore clock, which extends to the calf, is pink. The clock was subsequently embroidered in polychrome silks with a design of two-handled urns containing stylised pine trees alternating with pairs of facing peacocks, which reduce in size as the stocking tapers. The clock is finished with a scroll and leaf motif, two more peacocks and a crown. An embroidered border pattern covers the join between the green and pink silk. The embroidery is worked by the counted thread technique. The stockings are just over knee length and have two pink stripes at the upper, turned edge. The letters ‘E A COST A’ are knitted into one stocking under the stripes. The letters are presumed to signify the manufacturer.
Black goes on to point out that the stockings were subsequently copied using a different technique. The example in the V&A’s collection (V&A: 666-1898), which is thought to be of English make and has been dated to the early 19th century, was frame knitted with a blue leg and ivory clock. The two sections were joined by seaming after the (less shapely) embroidered border had been worked on the leg and the main pattern on the clock. This method of construction did not require any specialist machinery or a particularly skilled operative and was a practical solution to replicating the design in a cheaper way. The embroidery uses similar motifs to the ‘Spanish’ stockings but in general the motifs are less skilfully rendered.
Further research on Pinterest revealed several more examples of both the ‘Spanish’ and ‘English’ types in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (four pairs), Museum of Fine Art, Boston (two pairs) and the Kyoto Costume Collection (one pair). Furthermore the Reggio Emilia Museum in Italy has a pair of the ‘English’ type which survived with a late 18th century man’s coat and waistcoat. These stockings are variously described as Spanish, Italian, French and English and the majority are dated to the early 19th century.
Why were the stockings copied? If the copies are English, it was probably because of the ban on the importation of foreign, ready-made silk garments and accessories introduced in 1765. This regulation was designed to protect Britain’s domestic industries and may well have encouraged an enterprising manufacturer to offer copies of a stocking design with proven sales.
Alternatively could the stockings have been produced in Nimes, and then copied in either Spain or England? An extract from the 1809 publication, A General Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages …, includes the following observation:
“For a long time our manufactories of Languedoc – of Nismes (sic) particularly – had been accustomed to furnish the ladies of Peru with stockings. For this they had looms constructed on purpose, in which they worked their stockings with broad clocks, embroidered in different colours; but the Spaniards imagined themselves competent to the supply of the Peruvian ladies according to their taste. They set up similar looms for manufacture of stockings, and flattered themselves at first with rivalling, afterwards entirely supplanting our manufacturers.”
Restrictions on the import of stockings into Spain were introduced in 1779, and, with greater impact, in 1787 but in reality the regulation was frequently evaded by French merchants working with Spanish silk ‘manufacturers’ in Cadiz. Seals declaring the stockings to be of Spanish manufacture were illegally attached enabling them to be re-exported to the Spanish colonies.
It is also possible that both stockings were made in Nîmes for different markets. Stockings made in Nîmes were exported to Italy via the port of Marseille which might explain the survival of the pair in Reggio Emilia.
This lengthy blog poses more questions than answers! We would be interested to hear from any textile and fashion historians who might be able to shed light on the stockings, their country of origin and date.
My thanks to Sandy Black for her research and to Cristina Barreto who drew my attention to the stockings in Reggio Emilia.
For the hosiery industry in Nîmes, see: M. Sonnenscher, ‘The Hosiery Industry of Nîmes and the Lower Languedoc in the Eighteenth Century’, Textile History, vol. 10, 1979, pp. 142-60.
Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, Victoria and Albert Museum, until 12 March 2017
The exhibition explores the close relationship between underwear and fashion, and its critical role in shaping the body to the fashionable ideal, and the importance of design and technology to its increasing functionality, fit and comfort.