Gaze on her face. And know that this was the first women ever contemporaneously recorded as being buried in red silk stockings.
Born in 1522, she was a woman of formidable intellect: trusted by her Medici husband to run his affairs in Tuscany when he travelled.
Eleanor of Toledo, a Salamancan, has been fabled by some as the first ever formal First Lady. A fiercely loyal wife, she also put on the perfect show of luxury. Her dresses were always meticulously stylish and lavish; indeed, she employed 10 gold and silver weavers to work on her clothes at any one time.
Oh, my dear, the dresses.
But it was her red stockings which may have bested Elizabeth I. For many years it was thought that Elizabeth was the first woman to wear silk stockings after her silkwoman, Mistress Alice Montague, made a black silk pair which put all other linen stockings in the shade. And from that time on – around 1560 – she would wear nothing else, it is said.
The story was reported in documents written 50 years afterwards
But contemporaneous records of Eleanor’s burial, after she and her sons died of malaria in 1562, record she was buried in the crimson stockings she wore in life.
So the prize for the first silk stockings hovers between two iron ladies. But they have been a luxury, dividing rich from poor, since Elizabeth’s sumptuary laws.
She died in 1603: and around 150 years later, the difference between a luxury and a rough everyday stocking was still plain for all to see. And it gave rise to a label both prized and despised.
It was Yorkshire woman Elizabeth Montague, wealthy and pragmatic, who began to gather about her a society of clever people, including Dr Johnson and such elevated personalities. They discussed iterature and art over tea and biscuits. And she chose to include both the great men of the day- and the great women.
Black silk stockings were for formal wear; blue worsted were for rough daily use. Benjamin Stillingsfleet -author, botanist and translator – had given up society, and had no evening clothes to wear for Mrs Montague’s gatherings. Oh, not to worry, Mrs Montague said: Come in your blue stockings.
And a brand was born.
Appearance played second fiddle to intellect in The Bluestocking Club. Yet both of these were trumped by gender.
Somehow, the bluestocking label became one associated with women intellectuals. And as such, Elizabeth Montague’s society incurred vitriolic criticism. Take a look at this:
“The bluestocking,” said writer William Hazlitt, ” is the most odious character in society … she sinks wherever she is placed, like the yolk of an egg, to the bottom, and carries the filth with her.”
At the time, women were expected to take wisdom from their peers- as writer Anna Barbauld advised at the time: “The best way for a woman to acquire knowledge is from conversation with a father, or brother, or friend.”
The accomplished women in the bluestocking ranks supported each other intellectually.The Oxford National Dictionary of Biography records Elizabeth as giving as good as she got: “In a woman’s education, little but outward accomplishment is regarded ,” she said.
“..Sure, the men are very imprudent to endeavor to make fools of those to whom they so much trust their honour and fortune, but it is in the nature of mankind to hazard their peace to secure power, and they know fools make the best slaves.”
Who could have guessed the stocking could be so divisive? From crimson to black to blue, all made a statement greater than their diminutive size in the wardrobe.
A small, but very telling, coda.
After the death of Elizabeth I’s father, Henry VIII, his wardrobe was itemised and recorded methodically.
And in the inventory, clear as day, are recorded several pairs of silk stockings.
With thanks to The Purple Files for a fabulously researched article on the Renaissance stocking.
Excerpt from Wikipedia:
Anna Laetitia Barbauld, James Beattie, Frances Boscawen, Henrietta Maria Bowdler, Edmund Burke, Frances Burney, Elizabeth Carter, Margaret Cavendish-Harley, Hester Chapone, Mary Delaney,Sarah Fielding, David Garrick, Samuel Johnson,Ada Lovelace, Catharine Macaulay, Elizabeth Montagu Hannah More, William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath, Clara Reeve, Sarah Scott, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Catherine Talbot, Hester Thrale, Elizabeth Vesey, Horace Walpole, and Anna Williams were all part of the Bluestocking circle at one time or another.