“When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?”
I have been thinking of pitching Radio 4 the idea for a series: A History of Human Sexuality in a Hundred Objects. After the Swedish antler-bone dildo from 6,000 BC; an Egyptian faience figurine invoking Hathor, goddess of sexual love; a triphallic relief (if that’s the right word; he certainly looks as if he needs some) of Priapus, in stone; the Venus of Willendorf (a bubble-permed Fat Slag straight out of Paleolithic Viz); the Cerne Abbas giant and a few medieval busty madonnas, I would eventually come to these:
“Our object this week is clearly intended more for the well-heeled than the down-at-heel. Hand-woven in a small, tight gauge from silk dyed the palest pink, they were shaped to fit the wearer’s leg: wider at the calf and thigh and narrowing to hug the knee and ankle, where an elaborate clocking of pure silver thread and beading winds alluringly upward in a scrollwork flourish. Though this will hardly have improved them in terms of comfort, the embellishment marks them out as luxury goods of the highest order, to be glintingly displayed amongst titled company. Fastened at the knee with a ribbon or a buckled leather strap, padded in the calf to simulate youthful curves, their colour will have been chosen to complement their wearer’s coat, waistcoat and breeches. They are a pair of gentleman’s stockings, from the 18th century.”
Gentlemen’s stockings… Such an idea is almost a contradiction in terms, so absolutely and unequivocally have stockings become an attribute of femininity at its most alluring to the twenty-first century mind. When we think of stockings, after uttering the obligatory Sid Jamesian ‘phwoar’, tongues lolling out like Pavlov’s dogs’s, we likely imagine sheer black nylons on a pair of shapely pins, posed with show-girl style and bad-girl attitude.
We forget that in the eight long centuries B.L. (before Lycra, the phenomenally elastic polyurethane-polyurea copolymer invented for DuPont in 1959) ‘stockings’ meant baggy tubes of coarsely knitted wool, linen or cotton which sagged in voluminous, Nora Batty wrinkles around the knees and ankles of both sexes. We forget King Edward III fastening Joan of Kent’s dropped garter around his own stockinged thigh, with a cry of ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ (trans: ‘Think what you like, ducky’). Or poor deluded Malvolio in his cross-gartered yellow hose. We certainly try our absolute damnedest not to imagine Queen Victoria, with the 50-inch-waist of her mid-fifties, still hitching up her favourite style (black silk, with contrasting white feet); nor the beading brow of her bearded ghillie as his eyes stray upward from her tiny toes and delicate ankles to the vast swell of the monarchic thigh, impiously dimpled by white stocking-tops decorated with the royal crest – VR surmounted by a crown. (Anyone for whom the Unamused One is still the last word in panting excitement will be thrilled to learn that it’s currently a buyer’s market for Victoria’s secret smalls. While in 2008 her stockings were sold at auction in Derby for £8,000; a twin pair that went under the hammer in Edinburgh this March fetched only £690.)
We live in happy times for stocking-lovers. We have a dazzling choice of denier from 8 (barely-visible) to 120 (opaque). Lycra ensures that the fit is snug and wrinkle-free. And, most importantly, there have never been so many options for holding the things up: everything from boned corsets, waspies and wide retro styles, to bra-strap width wisps of lace, and even thongs and panties with suspenders attached. (Personally, I find these pointless and disappointing, as they preclude one of life’s great erotic delights: stripping to remove everything but the stockings and garter-belt). You can choose belts with anything from two to eight straps, depending how anxious you are about stocking-slippage. You can even do without suspenders altogether and plump for gummy-topped hold-ups. (For those female readers who worry that the hold-up’s grip compresses their inner thighs into trembling blancmanges, I offer a technique shared with me by contacts in the sex industry: buy a size too large, and pull them right up to the buttocks’ under-crease).
Such plenitude of style and fit was not always the case. Beneath her outer clothes your average girl, even in the fifties and sixties, was impenetrably swaddled from shoulder to mid-thigh in rubberised panty-girdles, corselets or slips. These utilitarian items, made in white, nude or black, closely resembled medical bandages and threatened involuntary circumcision should one of their robust stocking-clips fly open during withdrawal. It tells you all you need to know about how uncomfortable this underwear was to wear that when two-strap garters fastening to a simple waist-belt were developed (even with its floral motif, more closely resembling a jock-strap or pair of Tyrolean braces than anything we would wear today), it was marketed under the name Fancee Free.
Small wonder that when the opportunity came to cast your roll-up stockings and girdle aside in favour of tights with short, flippy skirts you could stride about in rather than hobbling, a world of women jumped at the chance. As a result stockings became fetishised. Though they freely offered a view of more leg than had been publicly shown before in recorded time, tights ultimately permitted less direct genital contact than had been enjoyed with one wrist wedged up beneath the girdle’s hem. Suspenders-and-stockings by contrast became synonymous with the zipless fuck, the all-access pass to a moment of bliss. Synecdochally, they came to stand for eroticism in all its contradictions – display/concealment, clothing/nakedness – more than simply sexuality. Where previously they had been underwear, functional and necessary, now they were lingerie. Designers striving to find a middle-ground between eroticism and comfort have developed open-crotch tights and even, pioneered by Chantal Thomas for spring/summer 2009, trompe l’oeil tights that resemble suspenders and stockings (£42.00, though Henry Holland’s lookalike design for Pretty Polly can be slipped into your inamorata’s stocking for a more reasonably-priced £12.00-£15.00). Personally, I feel they are missing the point – wanting the allure of the look without the arse-chilling thrill is a little like wanting a raspberry without its sour little tang – and suspect that they selling the idea of feeling naughty rather than creating anything that will appeal to the male gaze, but I will happily be proven wrong.
But what became of men in stockings? Over two centuries or so the gartered stocking gradually became the sock-suspender, which became the elastic-topped sock. Once suspenders and stockings were rebranded as unequivocally feminine garments, any man wearing them was automatically a transvestite and a transgressor. Arguably, however, now that every boy-band member or popular TV presenter wanting to ‘spice-up’ his image has danced the Time Warp as Frank in Rocky Horror, and nightclubs weekly groan with cross-dressed stag-parties, seeing a man in stockings has lost most of its shock-value and thus perhaps its thrill. For those of you chaps then wanting to try something a little different this Christmas to surprise and delight your beloved when you slough off your togs, why not order yourself the robustly male suspender-belt as worn by ice-hockey players? One of the world’s most violent sports, it is played by men of unquestionable toughness and masculinity, all of whose socks are gartered to the groin. But whatever you do, unless you’re feeling boastful, don’t wear tights.
Images: (top) 18thC stockings from the Textile and Costume Museum, Barcelona. Photo credit: Susie Bubble, stylebubble;(middle) Fancee Freeand (bottom) Pro Guard Hockey Garter Belt (SENIOR).