Long Stockings: Gender Conventions--Chronology

Figure 1.--Here we see a family from Gardiner, Maine in 1894. The girls and younger boy look to be wearing identical long black stockings. I'm not sure whatg kind of hosiery the older boy in lomg pants is wearing.

HBC has not thoroughly investigated early historical periods, but it seems only recently in historical terms that long stockings or over-the-knee hosiery became chiefly a woman's fashion. Long stockings were worn by Europeans for centuries. There were gender differences over time and in the modern era among countries. We have only limited information on clothing during much of this period, especially the early medieval era. We have especially limited information about gender conventions. We do know they were commonly worn by men and boys and for many years were an important part of their clothing. We know more about men and boys than women and girls because male fashions did not cover the legs and the stockings were thus a very importmernt article of clothing. We know much more about the modern era, especially when photographic images become available. Long stockings became widely worn by both boys and girls after the mid-19th century. The availability of photographic portraits have enabled us to develop a good bit of information on gender conventions even though we have been avle to find little written information. This is a period in which both boys and girls commonly wore long stockings, although there were variations from country to country. While both boys and girls basically wore the same stockings, there were some gender differences. During the late 19th and early 20th century long stockings were worn by both boys and girls. In fact the same stockings were worn by both genders. Countless images show both boys and girls wearing them. We have developed some basic information on the gender conventions over time. For children, long stockings were eventually replaced with tights beginning in the late 1950s.

Medievel Era (7th-14th Centuries)

Men wore long stockings or tights with their legs exposed the medieval era before modern trousers appeared. I am nor entirely sure when stockings first appeared. We knpow more about men than women. This is because the long dresses worn by women covered their legs in period paintings.

Renaisance (15th-16th Centuries)

Men during the Renaissance commonly wore long tights/lonf stockings, sometimes with short tunics. Clergy of the era sometimes complained that the tunics were shickingly short. Women wore very lobg dresses and middleage and elderly men wore long cloaks that covered theor legs. Before knee breeches, of course, men often wore thigh-length stockings with "trunk hose" (very short trousers that were stuffed and looked a little bit like bloomers). This latter was an Elizabethan style, familiar to students of Shakespeare. In the late middle ages (14th and 15th centuries) men wore stockings that came up almost to the crotch and were attached to the waist by strings or laces called "points". They looked like tights but were actually individual stockings that were almost waist-high. Young men wore cod pieces to cover the genitals (the part of the lower body not covered by the long stockings) and short tunics which sometimes barely covered the buttocks. Until comparatively recently in terms of centuries, it was the men rather than the women who advertised their bodies by exposing their legs and upper thighs encased in stockings.

Early Modern Era (17th and 18th Centuries)

Trousers appeared in the 17th century and took the form of kneebreeches leaving some of the leg still exposed. Both men and boys wore the same style of trousers. Extremely long thigh-length stockings were no longer necessary. As pants ended just below the knee, the stockings had to extend only a little above the knee. Knee breeches, which were worn by men and boys throughout the 18th century and even into the early 19th century in some cases, required long stockings that reached above the knee because many of the breeches were quite brief and came only just to the knee. Not all breeches buckled below the knee. Notice the many paintings which show 18th-century men in a sitting position. These paintings often show that the stockings cover the knees. They didn't have to go very far above the knees of course, but they were usually held in place by garters that were in fact ribbons that tied around the upper leg. A reader tells us, "In modern stage plays and operas that require men to wear knee breeches, the actors always wear tights under knee breeches. And the same custom holds true today in Great Britain when knee breeches are required for "court dress" or for certain legal ceremonies. Knee-length stockings would not be sufficient and were not worn by men or boys until a much later period." Women's dresses continued to cover the entire leg. Thus during this era, long stockings were not needed by women and girls. I am not entirely sure, however, just what length stockings they wore during this period. A HBC reader reports, "As part of my research on long stockings during the 18th and early 19th centuries, I've discovered that adult women and girls, even though they wore floor-length dresses most of the time, wore over-the-knee stockings gartered just above the knee with ribbons or strips of cloth tied to keep the stockings in place. Theoretically adult women wouldn't have needed stockings to extend much above the calf because only the ankles would show, but we know from various sources (literature, vintage clothing, and images that show women only partially dressed) that in fact they wore over-the-knee stockings like the men who needed over-the-knee stockings for their knee breeches. Warmth and general comfort (as well as modesty) may have been a factor for women's and girls' long stockings during this period. Another interesting fact is that really short stockings, knee length or shorter, whether for boys or girls, seem to be a relatively modern invention, and did not become popular until the 19th century.

19th Century

Beginning with the French Revolution (1789) there was a revolt against knee breeches under which men and boys wore stockings. The style was considered too formal and aristocratic, so long trousers gradually replaced knee breeches. Boys were the first to begin wearing long trousers. We see boys wearing long trouser skeleton suits at the end of the 18th century, but men of substance did not begin wearing long trousers until well into the 19th cdentury. What we don't know at this time is what kind of hosiery was worn with the skeleton suits. Boys commonly wore white stockings, but as the pants normally came down to or near the ankle, we do not know how long they were. We have the same question about girls. They also wore white stockings, but as hems were very long, we do not know how long the stockings were. We suspect that boys and girls in the early 19th century wore the same white stckings, but we are not sure about this nor how long the stockings were. The style of long trousers for adult men were not fully accepterd until the 1820s. Even then, knee breeches were still worn by some men up until the mid-19th century for special occasions. Oscar Wilde liked to wear knee breeches with black stockings even at the end of the 19th century. Long stockings began to become popular for children in the second half of the 19th century. This was when the fashion of kneepants and knickers began to become popular for boys. We know much more about this process because the trousers became shorter, the stockings had to become longer. Thus we see long stockings for children. We are not entirely sure if tey reappeared or it is thus we can see them because the pants are shorter. Women's and girls hosiery are more of a question, especially during the decades in which skirts went down to the foot. We see boys and girls wearing the same hosiery in the late 19th century. We see both genders wearing stripped and colored long stockings. Gradually black long stockings became note and more standard for both genders, especially by the 1890s. White stockings were worn by both boys and girls, but were more common for girls. Older boys in particular did not normally wear white long stockings.

20th Century

Until the early 20th century women wore floor-length or at least ankle-length gowns, so the only part of their stockings that were exposed were the ankles. Women's stockings therefore didn't have to be very long because only a small part of the lower leg would ever show. This all changed about the second decade of the 20th century at which point women's dresses got shorter and shorter, exposing more and more of their legs, whereas men changed to socks which didn't need to be much higher than mid-calf. Boys, however, continued to wear knee pants, knickers, or short pants with long stockings much later because up until about 1950 (especially in Europe), it was not considered proper for boys to wear long trousers until about age 14. I was born in 1927 and was not allowed to wear long trousers until I was 14. Getting one's first long pants was a big deal in the 1920s and 1930s, and some conservative parents didn't allow boys to dress in long trousers until their final year in highschool. In some countries such as Germany and Russia, boys were still wearing short trousers, often with long stockings, as late as 16 and 17. A number of alterations in cultural attitudes seem to lie behind these changes. Greater and greater informality led to much more casual clothing for everybody--of both sexes--and also for children. And children's dress, especially short trousers and long stockings for boys, gave way to dressing children pretty much the way adults dressed, thus erasing the symbolic distinction between childhood and manhood (in terms of clothing). With the gradual sexual revolution and the increasing power and equality of women, came less modest dress for the feminine sex. Whereas it would have been considered obscene for women in the Victorian period to show their upper legs, it started to be "daring" to do so in the roaring 1920s, and some women wore their skirts so short that their garters began to be suggestively exposed on certain occasions. But it was this very trend that boys, who also had to wear the same kind of garters with their long stockings, began to hate because they didn't want to be dressed like girls or like their mothers, and they were sometimes embarassed about their garters showing under short trousers. Remember that in the 19th century boys often wore the same dresses as their sisters until about age 4 or 5 when they were "breeched" and began wearing trousers. Long stockings for boys have now disappeared almost completely, even in northern Europe, although in Russia and Germany and Japan, boys still wear tights under short pants for dressy occasions. An interesting survival of long stockings for men is in the game of ice hockey, where garter belts are still worn under short pants to hold up the long woolen stockings worn with the uniform (although the shorts are no longer as short as they used to be and velcro straps have begun in some cases to replace the more conservative garter belts with fasteners).


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Created: 10:49 PM 1/20/2006
Last updated: 4:06 PM 11/9/2008