Stockings, Hose, and Garters

Stockings, Hose, and Garters

Stocking, hose, sock… These are just a few terms for the many types of leg coverings that are woven or knitted of cloth, silk, wool, and cotton to provide both warmth and modesty. The styles, lengths, materials, weaves, etc. would change over the centuries, usually in response to garment fashion. Perhaps it may not come as a huge surprise, but it is men who most advanced the hose, and not solely because males were the primary leaders of industry and technology. You see, unlike women up until roughly 100 years ago, a man’s leg was in full view so it needed to be covered by something both fashionable and moveable for an active lifestyle. Efforts to improve how the stockings remained in place (all types were held up by lacings and belts with varying degrees of efficiency) led to developments in weaving implements, like pointed-needles, allowed for closer fit stockings. Considering the limitations in eras prior to anything resembling “modern” technology and machines, weavers did quite well, based on paintings from the era such as the examples below.

Florentine particolored hose, c. 1470
Pinturicchio di Betto, Libreria Piccolomini, 1502-1507.

SIDE NOTE: While the above paintings, and most from the medieval past, depict men wearing what we would call “tights”, that term did not enter the vocabulary until 1826.

A large stride forward in hosiery making happened in 1589 when English clergyman William Lee invented the knitting machine, also called a stocking frame. True “tight stockings” (still a relative term compared to what we have today) could be woven, making the ability to form-fit to the entire lower body far better than previous. Think Shakespeare and those fashionable Elizabethan tights!

Knitting Machine by British Inventor, William Lee

A garter is a band of (now) elasticized material or a suspender strap to hold a sock/stocking up. Origin 1300, French gartier meaning “a band above or below the knee.” It was in 1820 that Englishman Thomas Hancock founded the British rubber industry and patented elastic fasteners for gloves, suspenders, stockings, and shoes. Prior to that marvelous invention, loose hose were kept up by different inventions and methods, including straps, folding over and into the tops of boots, and cloth garters tied over the upper edge. The need to prevent the various leg coverings from falling down is so basic and ancient that there is no historical notation of when a garter was actually invented. Presumably clever, desperate folks would have utilized assorted materials to tie around the top edge of a stocking long before the item may have been given a specific name and design. Over time they became a fashionable item all their own, sewn with pretty lace, ribbons, and even small bells.

1) The practice of tossing the wedding garter is considered by most sources to be the oldest surviving wedding ritual. No one really knows for sure when the idea originated and the purposes of the custom varied. During the Dark Ages it was traditional for guests to accompany the bride and groom to their conjugal bed, the groom then throwing the garter out the door as an indication that he was attending to the necessary task of consummation. Good man! Other superstitions believed that keeping a part of the bride’s wedding garment brought good luck, a small token such as a garter preferable to tearing a piece of the bride’s wedding gown.

2) The British Most Noble Order of the Garter is the oldest and noblest order of knighthood in England, dating from 1348, and is still the premiere Order to this day. The history of this Order is steeped in legend and mystery, but the garter has always been the symbol. Exactly how a garter was chosen is unknown as the earliest records were destroyed by fire, but there is agreement that the intimate and supportive nature of a garter (remember, worn by men as well) was a key factor.

A Leg to Stand On: A History of Hosiery
History of Hosiery on Vienne-Milano
A Brief History of Hosiery on UK Tights
History of Socks
Stocking Frame on Wikipedia



Sharon Lathan

Sharon Lathan is the best-selling author of The Darcy Saga, a ten-volume sequel series to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

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I used to have enough problems with my socks staying up as a child, often using a piece of elastic. But trying to get it just right so it didn’t fall down with the sick or cut off my circulation was an art in itself!
As for tights? When they were first available I was delighted and wore them to the school Christmas party, alas they were not brilliant and while dancing they sagged into large wrinkles round my ankles! (Not the best look!)
So I’m very impressed with how they managed it in Regency times, both men and women!


Thanks for this informative post. It made me think of the days I used to wear pantyhose.

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