Hogarth’s The Rake at Rose Tavern, Scene III of The Rake’s Progress, 1733. In particular note the prostitute in the lower left portion, seated on a chair, fiddling with her shoes. She is wearing silk gore clock stockings popular in the period.
During the early 1700s, stockings for both sexes were fashioned alike. Often they were brightly colored, the embroidery contrasting with the gore (a wedge insert at the instep). Opulent embroidery was common among the upper classes while the lower classes bought plain stockings, most likely made of wool. If one could afford it, machine-knitted stockings were a much sought after luxury following the invention of the Derby Rib machine in 1758. This machine allowed for the production of an elastic type sock, a more comfortable invention that its stretch-free predeccesor. Until the early part of industrialization, the lower classes had to make do with the outmoded and imperfect method of hand-knitted socks.
Although few intact stockings remain, we do know a vast array of colors and styles were available. Hosiers experimented with different fabric and designs, moving from the silk gore clock to the silk or cotton lace clocks, and later even stripes, zigzags, and of course the oldest fashion, plain. The finest ones were commonly made of silk, cotton or worsted, and cost a pretty penny indeed. Around 1738, they would set a shopper back as much as £1 2s, more than a fifth of some domestics’ wages.
Fit & Design
As early as the1670s, gore inserts revolutionized fit and comfort. These wedge shaped additions also provided decorative embellishments like embroidery and contrasting colors, although both were seen in lesser detail on earlier socks.
Antique Lace has several pictures of a pristine gore clock stocking, albeit from the United States, dating from 1720-1740. The stocking below is typical of European designs for the period.
Going the way of most fashions, gore clocks reached their zenith in the 1750s and were slowly replaced by embroidery without the gore. Flower and nature motifs also appeared in the middle of the century, followed by the increasinlgy simpler styles (if more complicated methods).
In the latter part of the century, white or cream dominated the stocking scene. Women were particularly inclined toward lace clocks, a method popularized after the 1760s where open-work patterns took on a–you guessed it–lacy appearance.
Men’s styles altered dramatically around the 1770s through the 80s. Stripes were worn by dandies and saw a comeback in the late 80s. Horizontally striped, aka banded, stocking were popularized around the 1790’s. This is also about the time the zigzag pattern appeared, although the stripes would remain the dominant fashion.
If you’re interested in the process of making stockings or desire a more comprehensive study, make sure to visit Knitting Together. They have quite a nice virtual museum. Another good resource is Notes on 18th century stockings. This one has lots of links for further inquiry.