Image: Stockings, English and American, 1885-1900.
Read on for an excerpt of the article Evil in the Wardrobe: Nineteenth century stockings, mending, shame and embarrassment, from Issue 102 Mend.
Have you ever darned a stocking? If you are under 90, probably not. Conceivably, you have never owned a stocking, let alone repaired it. But even now, the archaic act of stocking darning remains a powerful image, quintessentially female and domestic, the very opposite of stocking-adjacent accoutrements: suspenders, fishnets, garters, and the like. The stocking darn holds a special spot in domestic iconography, but never more so than in the late-nineteenth century, when whether and how you darned your stockings was freighted with especially grave significance.
Consider the dominant role these flimsy tubes of knit fabric played in a woman’s wardrobe throughout the nineteenth century, and for many decades on either side. Everyone was obliged to enrobe their limbs during every single waking hour: not only women, but men and children too–albeit in the sturdier, shorter versions we now call socks. Despite their naughty propensity to climb the limb–‘leg’ was a dirty word–stockings were seen as footwear and, of course, the ankle or top of the shoe was all that could be glimpsed. This only increased their allure.
Image: Pierre Auguste Renoir, Gabrielle darning, 1908, oil on canvas 64x53.5cm, Gabrielle Renard, nanny to the artist's son.
As the century began, the maiden skillfully mending her stockings was an image of pure virtue, with perhaps a touch of prurience, as you can tell by the 1805 On Seeing A Young Lady Darning Stockings: ‘Along the stocking’s foot, with ease and grace, your fingers, lovely Mira, when you move, on them my eye admiring will gaze...On me be exercised thy mending art. Come darn the hole that rankles in my heart.’ Once Mira had darned the rankling hole by marrying the man, the mending basket full of stockings came to symbolise hearth and home like nothing else: ‘Lucy alone at the window softly and cozily rocks Busily plying the needle Darning her husband’s old socks,’ went a lyrical ode of 1860. Lucy was ‘filling sad rents with a patience known to those only who darn,’ but her patience was about to run out. She no longer needed to darn as industrialisation accelerated stocking production and the plain ecru lisle or wool hose knit by her own hand were rapidly replaced by a cornucopia of styles and colours, readily available at all price points, from luxury to heavily discounted.
By the early 1880s a fashionable stocking wardrobe had increased from under half a dozen to well over a hundred pairs, with colours to match every dress, in stripes, zigzags, checks, lozenges, and various ombré and trompe l’oeil effects, embroidered, beaded, or inset with precious guipure, Mechlin, or Chantilly lace. Even to our modern jaded and sated eye, the variety of late-nineteenth century stockings is truly astonishing. A style was out before it was worn out, and replacing soon replaced mending, darning needle sales plummeting by 95 percent. ‘The height of luxury,’ proclaimed Harper's Bazaar in 1895, ‘is of course in being able to wear a pair of stockings only once.’ Of course. But darning did not die quietly–or, in fact, really die at all…
Excerpt from the article Evil in the Wardrobe: Nineteenth century stockings, mending, shame and embarrassment, written by Kate Sekules
Read the rest of the article, and our other ruminations on the theme of mending in the latest issue of Selvedge, Issue 102 Mend.