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A BRIEF HISTORY OF HOSIERY
by Lady Anastasia, Renaissance Dancewear
Reprinted from The Renaisance Herald

Hose or stockings of the Renaissance period were the refined decendents of leggings introduced to Northern and Central Europe by "Northern Barbarians". These leggings were generally constructed of animal skins and held up at the waist by a leather belt or girdle, (a belt with ends that extend long past the buckle or fastener at the waist). They were often cross tied down the legs with strips of leather, and were worn mainly for warmth and protection. As the dark ages were drawing to a close, and the relative wealth and prosperity of the Renaissance began to spread throughout Europe, clothing fabrics and construction techniques became more refined. By the 1300s stockings were most commonly cut on the bias from fine woven fabrics such as silk, cotton, and wool, and sewn to fit as closely as possible to the leg. Also, hose were no longer held up by a belt but were tied through sets of holes in one's shirt, (what we think of as a doublet), or jerkin with lacings which were attached at intervals to the waist of the hose.

Particolour hose appeared in the 1400s, enjoyed a revival during the reign of Henry VIII, and lingered into the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I. In 1477 the Swiss gained a much heralded victory over the Duke of Burgundy. The soldiers mended their ragged uniforms with strips of tents and banners. In a dashing, romantic blend of feverish patriotism and bold fashion, the Swiss-German people translated this "new look" brought home by their soldiers into clothing that was purposefully slashed to reveal contrasting fabrics beneath at every possible point on the body, including the hose. Although this fashion gained its most eccentric heights in Germany, it was copied throughout Europe and remained popular till about the mid 1500s.

Hose could be fashioned so that at least one leg was slashed from waist to toe, revealing dramatic contrasting fabric beneath. But later they became puffy at the top and stuffed with horse hair, bran or other such material to support the elaborate slashing of the costly and heavy fabrics used. These slashes evolved into panes and ribbons at the top, with particoloured and/or slashed stockings, (what we think of as socks), from the knee down.

Although our modern interpretation of this pant-like garment is a separate pair of "puff pants", "breeches", or "pumpkin pants", in Renaissance times they were considered as part of the hose. Very short puffs were refered to as trunk hose, popular in the early 1500s. Puffs that extended to the knee were called canions, and those that extend beyond the knee called venetians, both of which were popular from the mid 1500s to the 1700s. The lower half of the hose, the close fitting garment that we think of as tights, were called netherhose, or netherstocks, and were tied to the upper half of the hose, much as the entire assemblage was described above as tying to the shirt, or with rich, conspicuous ribbon garters at the knee.

Red, from the very beginning, was a most popular color for stockings or hose, but yellow, blue, black, green, violet, grey, and white were also worn with pride. Decorations of gold or silver gilt worked into the fabric all over, and as an edging at the top of the hose were also popular. In the manuscript "Execution Reginae Scotorum", printed by Mary Monica Constable Maxwell Scott in "The Tragedy of Fotheringhay" (1895), Mary Queen of Scotts was observed to have worn to her execution, among other things, ". . . nether stocks, [knee high stockings], of worsted, [combed wool], of coloured watchett, [sea blue], clocked [decorated in an all over pattern], with silver and edged at the tops with silver, and next her legs a pair of Jersy, [knitted cotton], hose white".

Although the technique of knitting garments was known from as early as the 4th or 5th century, and was used upon occasion to construct socks or stockings of sorts, most often for children, it was not widely used as a method of garment construction until the mid 1500s because of the difficulty of producing long, smooth, fine steel knitting needles.

The first mechanization of wireworks, by waterpower, was begun in 1566 in England. Within 30 years England and much of Europe was well supplied with lovely knitting needles, and the knitting of garments greatly increased thereafter. Elizabeth I was also responsible for a change in fashion from cut and sewn to knitted hose.

Silk knitted hose had been available to the upper class since the time of King Henry VIII and perhaps before. We know that both Henry, and later his son, Edward, were given pairs of luxurious knitted silk hose imported from Spain. But Henry, apparently, continued to prefer cut and sewn hose, and poor Edward was not given enough time in this world to prefer much of anything, so the fashion of cut and sewn hose continued until Queen Elizabeth was given a pair of silk hose, (their origin is still in debate). As the story goes, Her Most Royal Majesty tried them on and was so please with their comfort and softness that, thereafter, she would wear no other. Courtiers and the Nobility, burdened, evidently, by the lack of a gene that codes for independent thinking*, quickly followed suit, and fine knit hose, many with complex and beautiful patterns, became all the rage.

By this time, multi-colored hose fell out of fashion, and, although hose could be of a bright or subtle shade, they were almost certainly of a solid color, and persisted in this vein until Victorian times, when they were replaced with trousers. Trousers had been worn since the late 1500s by the working class as a means of protecting the legs during hard labor. But, of course, a true gentleman was not involved in manual labor, and, therefore, would not be caught dead in trousers. This fashion rule changed radically with the French Revolution, when working class garb became all the rage.

It is interesting to note the names of colors given to hose which were listed in a dyer's advertisement from Neufchateau in Lorraine, (printed in 1607). The names include Dying Monkey, Merry Widow, Lost Time, Resuscitated Corpse, Amorous Desire, Monkey's Smile, Sad Friend, Mortal Sin, Sick Spaniard, Colour of Hell, Doe's Belly, Kiss-me-Darling, and Brown Bread. (Quoted from "A History of Hand Knitting" by Richard Rutt, Bishop of Leicester, pub. B T Batsford Ltd, 1989. The Bishop notes that these colors "range chiefly in the pinks, beiges and flesh tints".)

In our efforts to recreate the flavor of Medieval and Renaissance Europe, we most often choose that more comfortable decedent of ancient hosiery; modern, stretchy tights. Although our zeal to be as authentic as possible may tempt us to construct, (or whine or beg or pay the big bucks to someone else to construct), hose from bias cut woven cotton, silk or wool, the discomfort involved in wearing close fitting garb-without-give should be kept in mind. Rashes and irritations from rough fabrics were a problem for renaissance folk who could not afford knitted silk. Our limbs, left tender and soft by the comfort of relatively loose fitting trousers and stretchy fabrics, would most certainly chafe in such attire, even more so then our ancestors, whose skin must have grown accustomed to such rough treatment from daily donning of wool or cotton hose. And the expense and difficulty of obtaining hand knitted silk hose as a more comfortable, yet correct attire is, nowadays, prohibitive.

This brings us back to our modern-day tights. Good, flat finished, (non-shiney), opaque tights can, under the above mentioned circumstances, be quite excellent stand-ins for the tight fitting, leg flattering, fine textured silk knit or woven hose worn by those we seek to honor with our re-enactments.

*The truth, of course, is, that following the Queen's lead in everything, even fashion, was just good sense if one wished to keep one's position in court.

 

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