Skip to content

Hosiery's Colourful Past

Posted 10.06.19  - Style

Perhaps only partly because it cannot be easily removed, the last item of apparel to be invented by humankind has yet to acquire the chivalric connotations of the hat, the glove or even the shoe.

The garter - not the fallen stocking - gave its name to England’s oldest order of chivalry. Yet, notwithstanding its lack of romantic symbolism, hosiery has been an integral part of costume impact since the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine I. Dismiss from your mind the ‘fun’ sock of the 1980s. This showcased what is - only to the extent that it is covered-up - an undergarment, yet it did so as a distinct unit, and thus gravely belittled the value of hosiery. The relegation of the sock to a disjointed and disposable novelty is as sartorially monstrous as reducing it to a thing of merely practical virtue.

Italian Costume c. 1500

Every feature of Turnbull & Asser’s hosiery has a long and distinguished history. From Roman poet M. Valerius Martialis’s promotion of socks woven from the beard of the Libyan he-goat in 102 AD to the arrival of pantaloons at the end of the 18th century, all hosiery was long. Consequently, we at Turnbull & Asser make no apology for the fact that half our hosiery meets the knee. Our remaining hosiery is mid-calf length, and this shorter sock also has a long and distinguished history - arriving with full-length loose-legged trousers, and supported with sock garters until the arrival of weavable elastic at the end of the 1920s. Together with our multiple hosiery lengths, Turnbull & Asser’s broad array of plain and patterned socks provide a playground of possibility. But how do our visitors best select from this gamut of options?

Socks displayed in various sizes in our Jermyn Street flagship location

Firstly, by remembering that for a span of time longer than the tenure of the greatest empires, hosiery celebrated the male leg - long before the existence of the female leg was publicly recognised. “Take back thy stockings,” goes the 17th century account “and know, foolish sir, that the Queen of Spain hath no legs.” Not so the man, whose shapely leg was on display throughout Medieval Europe, and still on display when leg-hugging pantaloons extended breeches to the ankle. So, consider hosiery less a modesty garment designed to keep ladies from fainting at the sight of the Neanderthal vestige of the male leg, and instead, see it as a garment that presents the shapeliness and muscularity of the masculine leg in an accentuated line.

Secondly, be certain that the history of hosiery styling is too varied and too rich to admit any dos and don’ts. The tights of the knights crossing the Channel to join Edward III for his Round Table in 1346 were of an unchecked number of different combinations of pattern and colour.

Turnbull & Asser socks are made using the finest quality cotton, cashmere and wool

Moreover, they wore hose, jackets and shoes of variegated colour. Should you believe in accentuating a colour worn elsewhere, know that France’s Louis XIV wore red hose to match his hat feathers and cuff ribbons.

If you favour more tonal hosiery, recognise that you echo the taste of England’s Charles II, who instituted a monochrome fashion “to teach the nobility thrift”. If you like contrasting toes and heels, appreciate their provenance in the hosiery gores of contrasting colour that were the norm at the end of the 17th century. Are you comfortable with vertically striped, horizontally banded and checked hose? Then carry with you the knowledge that the Galerie des Mondes of 1787 uses the term ‘English stockings’ to refer to hosiery with vertical stripes an inch or so wide, that George ‘Beau’ Brummell wore horizontally banded socks for evening wear, and the biographer and diarist James Boswell ‘diced’ socks on a visit to his friend and mentor Thomas Sheridan in April 1763. Do you select your hose to match your trousers, like the mythical Gargantua of Rabelais, “whose breeches were of velvet, of the same colour of their stockings, or very near”? Or do you, like the Victorians, select your socks to match the colour of the industrial endeavour about you? Perhaps, like Edward VIII, thereafter Duke of Windsor, you play golf in socks that perfectly match your sweaters.

Geometric patterned socks are an elegant option for those wanting to stray away from solid colours

Paul Alexis, a gigolo in Have His Carcase (1932) by Dorothy Sayers, was murdered wearing mauve socks, tie and a matching handkerchief. A punishment in keeping with Hardy Amies’ sentiment when he decreed in his ABC of Men’s Fashion (1964): “It is permissible to wear socks of entirely different colour from the rest of the costume, provided the rest of the costume is of one series of colours.” However, we don’t live in the 1930s, the early ‘60s, nor even truly the 2010s – we live in the history of humankind, and just as humanity seeks itself in the extensive and varied annals of its existence, Turnbull & Asser looks for its socks in hosiery’s colourful past.

Alain Rowe - Turnbull & Asser Store Team

Other Articles You May Enjoy

  • Turnbull's Trousers Etiquette

    Turnbull's Trousers Etiquette

    British heritage staples reimagined for today: much like the iconic Turnbull & Ass...

    Read more
  • Master British Style and Colour

    Master British Style and Colour

    In its 130-year history, Turnbull & Asser has earned a reputation for bold colour c...

    Read more
  • The Gentleman’s Shirt Guide for All Occasions

    The Gentleman’s Shirt Guide for All Occasions

    Refined, timeless, iconic: our Turnbull & Asser shirt has been a classic for over a...

    Read more

to top