A Party of Ladies and Gentlemen , from Salt-petre Bank and its environs, enjoyed the amusement of a Hop, a few evenings ago, at The Cat and Bagpipes, on the Fulham Road… the most genteelest couple at the Ball, were a Lady with red shoes, yellow stockings and blue clocks… and much to the credit of the Ladies, no more than five got drunk, during the whole evening.
Oracle and Daily Advertiser (London), Wednesday, July 9th, 1800.
In the eighteenth century, even the colour of your stockings said something about who you were. Yellow stockings were somehow shameful. Maybe a hangover from Malvolio’s yellow stockings and crossed garters, in ‘Twelfth Night’?
By the eighteenth century, they became associated with charity schools, poorhouses and prison inmates.Or flashy, embarrassing people. Red and blue became seen as ‘provincial’, but yellow seem to have not even been that.
Until the advent of aniline dyes, most yellows were probably made with weld. It was cheap and plentiful. Raw wool fibre for knitting could be dyed in the wool (ie: before spinning) or the finished yarn dyed. Before the factory system, raw wool was often distributed by middlemen – commonly grocers, and sometimes handspinners themselves – who would have it spun, then return it to the same middlemen to be re-distributed to weavers or frame or hand knitters. So hand knitters might be presented with natural coloured or wool of all colours to be knitted into stockings. The high-end eighteenth century stocking was silk, or silk with cotton feet. Then came worsted stockings (the preparation and spinning for worsted being more expensive and skilled processes than for woollen spinning).
Woollen spun stockings were often referred to as ‘thread’ or ‘yarn’ stockings. There were also cotton stockings. Stockings could be frame knitted – often knitted flat and the pieces sewn together. Silk stockings may have been frame-knitted more often. But it’s likely the stockings of the everyday (wo)man were hand knitted. In the extant stockings from the wreck of the General Carleton, (1785) the vast majority of the stockings are hand-knitted. Most stockings were dyed, and white were often high status as they required bleaching and would have been so impractical as to imply you had plenty of money, and many pairs of stockings, if you were wearing them. Some hosiers advertise white stockings as “fresh from the bleach”. Towards the end of the century, the fashion changed from white to black stockings.
Naturally grey wool was also used and some lower status stockings appear to have been called “mix’t” – probably knitted from various previously dyed colours, scribbled together in a scribbling mill – maybe leftovers from the manufacturing processes. An advert of 1798 puts “Grey and Marbled Worsted” stockings at one 1 shilling and 6d a pair. [Oracle and Daily Advertiser (London), Tuesday, October 30th, 1798]. Silk stockings might go up to anything as high as around 14 shillings a pair, at the same date. (According to the Patients’ Accounts at The Retreat asylum in York).
There are surprisingly few runaway servants or apprentices described as wearing yellow stockings, throughout the century. Most of these wore ‘grey’ or ‘mix’t’. ‘Marble’ wool is sometimes mentioned in hosiers’ advertisements; this was probably the same as ‘mix’t’. Few of the surviving extant eighteenth century stockings are yellow which may also reflect their low status, apart from brief seasons when yellow was suddenly in fashion.
On Friday night the Shop of Mr Thomas Clifton, Grocer….was broke open and robbed of… a Quantity of Stocking Yarn of various Colours… (Birmingham)
Public Advertiser (London), Thursday, October 10th, 1765.
Mr Clifton was no doubt a mill’s middleman, and would have had the stocking wool on hand for professional hand-knitters.
It made sense to dye stocking wool. Maybe yellow became despised as it was cheaper and more practical than white.
Cochineal (for scarlets) was 14 – 16 shillings a pound in 1791, according to the trading prices listed in World (1787) (London), Saturday, August 27th, 1791. Logwood (for purples) could be bought for £12 a tonne in Liverpool in 1808, according to Joseph Rogerson, the Bramley mill-owner. These were ‘exotic’ imports. Native weld, easy to grow, must have been a fraction of the price.
Talking of fashions in the time of James I, a 1777 writer says:
We learn from Sir Thomas Overbury, in his Character of a Country Gentleman, that Yellow Stockings were worn by some of the Ordinary Gentlemen in the Country.
Public Advertiser (London), Thursday, February 6th, 1777
Which implies that by the end of the eighteenth century, yellow stockings were seen as somewhat infra dig.
In a newspaper report on Cold Bath Fields Prison, we are told:
The convicted prisoners, in general, are clothed at the county’s expence. The clothing is good, and consists, for males, of a blue cloth jacket and trowsers, yellow stockings, and a shirt; for females of a blue jacket and petticoat, a cap, yellow stockings, leather shoes and a shift….
Porcupine (London), Monday, December 29th, 1800.
Yellow stockings as a badge of shame for convicts and the poor, survived into the nineteenth century. In ‘Howden, an East Riding Market Town’, Susan Butler and Ken Powls mention that Howdenshire poor were doled out “yellow stockings” according to the parish records and vestry meeting minutes. In the 1820s it was noted that stockings in the workhouse “are all in future to be dyed yellow”.
It’s possible the poorhouse bought them unbleached, maybe in the grease – so cheaper – to be scoured and dyed later.
10 replies on “Yellow Stockings of Shame”
Oops, that may have been me muddling the issue, with the comment on reenactors’ views of red or green stockings. That was just a statement on a perception of color meaning something.
The red shoes, hopefully not a red herring, being for children and women of impaired taste reminds me of something else. (Tangent alert!) Some years ago, Clare Rose pointed out that 18thC children wore bibbed aprons, but not adult females. This applied to English, as bibbed aprons are seen on Europeans. The print, “A City Shower,” has a maid wearing a bibbed apron, though, and from there someone made the assumption that it could also indicate prostitution.
So, red shoes and apron bibs, was there a point in using an item of juvenile style? Was it a way of suggesting the freshness of the goods?
I’ve no idea but child prostitution was definitely the precise kind of thing the York Spinning and Knitting Schools were set up to counteract. Amongst the first pupils were “nine miserable girls upon the town”. Interestingly, the Spinning School was started on the same street where, by the eighteenth century, a disused church had been re-purposed as a brothel!
English society was such a class-based, hidebound thing where people were indeed constantly judged for what they wore, how they looked, how they spoke, how well educated they were – and fashions changed rapidly and constantly, as they do now, so I think we can just vaguely trace the trajectory of a colour, across a culture, in a small, limited way. Must admit, I was dying to use that Gillray cartoon! But it probably muddied the waters a bit as I didn’t realise people would connect me mithering on about red shoes in the Comments, with the ‘shame’ of the title of the post! I’ve never seen prostitution as anything shameful – women throughout history have had no choice but to do that, to survive – especially pre Welfare State.
You’re right, it is dangerous to draw any conclusions from one engraving, or one written source. You have to try and pick up an overall trend and reflect that. But I think it is as erroneous to say colours have never had ‘meanings’ in culture, as to say any one colour only ever meant one thing. Very complex, also fascinating – as someone who’s practised natural dyeing for over 30 years, I never get bored of thinking about colour, or what colour meant. Certainly, the trading prices of imported dyestuffs in the eighteenth century/early nineteenth century, point to something native and easily grown and stored like weld or woad, being so cheap and plentiful that the resulting colours might become associated with a different class of people, to the fancy, expensive stuff… Where this gets more complicated and intriguing is when you think of reds (cheap, plentiful, universally grown madder or expensive, imported cochineal).
Im not following. How do yellow stockings mean prostitute, since all those people were given distinctive clothing?
Also, most rich in portraits wore white stockings, so perhaps those women were simply being conspicuous and not conforming, which was A Big Deal in the 18th C. How can we tell pink might not have been the same?
I have just covered this in the reply above, to Mara, but just to reiterate: I was talking about the ‘shame’ (as perceived by 18thC English society) of prisoners generally, also of poorhouses/workhouses and charity schools. Nothing to do with prostitution. (Which only became massively shameful in prudish Victorian culture, really).
I didn’t go into any detail about white stockigns as I was focussing here on yellow. It is interesting that you see many images of servants in white stockings, as well as their wealthy employers. Presumably, conspicuous consumption to say “Look, I’m so loaded I can afford to dress my servants in white stockings too!” Maybe also, in the same way many working class folk saved hard for a black silk bonnet, or a fancy silver watch – some also aspired to and bought the white stocking for themselves. It’s too big a subject to cover in a post about another colour, but mentioned in passing as an explanation of why the poorhouses dyed white stockings yellow.
Nowhere in the post did I say, so far as I’m aware, that “yellow stockings mean prostitute”. In reply to a comment, I said sometimes maybe red shoes were (whatever received wisdom is, I just pick up on what I find in primary sources and share it!)
Throughout, I tried to emphasise that there is no one set cultural assumption made about colour – ie: across a century, people’s perception of it varies. But by the end of the eighteenth century in England anyway, yellow seemed to become associated with ‘shame’. Nothing shameful about prostitution now or then, in my book, but certainly in the eighteenth century, those in power wanted to create a way of ‘shaming’ the poor, and convicts. See reply to comment above for more detail!
Red shoes were also worn by children, and red heels were fashionable on the shoes of the wealthy. So probably red is just “fancy”, not “slutty”.
You have yellow stockings above associated with prisoners, both male and female — well, prisoners aren’t all prostitutes, though of course prostitutes could become prisoners. A prostitute would probably have a choice in the colors of her stockings and would not be likely to choose a color that associates her with being a criminal; that would make it easier for legal authorities to target her.
The problem with declaring one color or another to be associated with prostitutes is that I’ve seen a number of such declarations made about various colors over the years with no real proof to back up these claims. I really don’t get why people do this. What’s the attraction of saying “color X means you’re a slut”? Really, I am boggled.
Ah sorry, you misunderstood me (or rather, I didn’t express myself clearly enough!) Yellow doesn’t seem to be associated particularly with prostitution – the ‘shame’ of the title refers to the way, by the end of the eighteenth century, yellow often seems to have been associated with prisoners, workhouse/poorhouse inmates, or charity school pupils. The ‘shame’ being more our class-ridden society’s attitude to poverty and crime generally. I wasn’t aware I ‘declared’ it was anything to do with prostitution? Also, I tried to emphasise throughout that the perception of various colours changes, across different decades – so something seen maybe at the start of the century as sort of unremarkable, later on may have been seen as “provincial”.
There is a bit more evidence for red shoes (on adult women) being seen as “racy” or “tasteless”. I’ve been involved with living history since around 1980 (re-enactment since around 1978) and have seen all the “muster fashions” and also “clothing theory” phases (for want of a better term) come and go! So one decade, people might believe x; the next decade, y – in terms of colours and people’s perceptions of them, searching literally millions of newspapers digitally as well as looking at other primary sources – I do indeed get the distinct feeling various colours had various (shifting) associations; changing across time. So I think it’s too dogmatic to say “x colour meant y stereotype” and at the same time, too dogmatic to say they never had any associations, ever. Steering a middle course, in other words, with very little regard to current dogma, one way or t’other. I do apologise if my post seemed in any way a “declaration”. I’m simply sharing observations picked up from primary sources, regarding cultural perceptions of colour at given times. Not saying any one thing reflected here was universally held as the only opinion possible; just reflecting what I find. Hopefully, that clarifies a bit. I should also point out I’m usually largely talking about English perceptions and using English (sometimes only Yorkshire!) sources. So the stuff I come out with reflects what I find. Before the Poor Law Act, there was no one idea of how to treat the poor; poor relief varied from parish to parish. There was outdoor relief (being ‘doled’ bread and sometimes money), and indoor relief (poorhouses, later union workhouses). People receiving outdoor relief were often forced to wear something shameful to identify them like a badge. John Styles in ‘The Dress of The People’ has an interesting photo of a cloth badge from the next parish along from here, Riccall, which those receiving parish help had to stitch onto their clothing, for example. This was one form of ‘shame’. Another was the poorhouse or charity school uniforms. It is interesting that over and over again, they choose yellow stockings. Ditto prisons.
Interesting to read about the history of yellow stockings. I have only ever heard of ‘blue stockings’ as my parents often mentioned them… perhaps it was a compliment but not so sure. Thank you for another interesting article.
Blue stockings were seen as a bit provincial, something country bumpkins wore. Then they got associated with the literary ladies of the Bluestocking Society!
Interesting, this is the first I’ve heard of yellow stockings having a reputation in the 18th century. There are myths going around reenactors about red or green stockings being for prostitutes, but that’s not true.
There have been opinions and biases about hand knit vs. frame knit stockings in the 18th century. One historian assumed they were all frame knit due to the large number of extant cottage / small factory buildings. Another source claims hand knits were “preferred” to frame knits, assuming they would be custom made for the wearer. But the fact is, we don’t know. Stockings were not described as frame knit or hand knit in advertisements. 1/3 of the General Carleton stockings are frame knit and 2/3 are hand knit, but that’s what happened to be rescued from that particular wreck. More significant is that the General Carleton collection includes the first extant examples of Derby ribs. We know that they existed, just hadn’t found any surviving before 1995. Extant items can tell us a lot of things, just not the numbers of hand knit and frame knit stockings in the 18th century.
Carol, I’ve found references to red stockings being ‘martial’, more than once. I think as I looked across a century’s worth of newspapers, for stocking colour references, I did notice that perceptions of colours change as well, over time, so something might be ‘slutty’ at one point, and not another. Red shoes, however, do seem to be associated with prostitution, at least at some points, in the eighteenth century. The red shoes in that quote I opened this blog piece with, are slightly telling of the writer’s intentions (along with the excellent throwaway line about only five of them were drunk!) Also, Gillray’s ‘The Whore’s Last Shift’, shows the lady of the night wearing red shoes. Probably something in Hogarth and no doubt Rowlandson, too! White stockings seem the overwhelming choice for most people, a lot of the time.
Gillray cartoon here: