The colour of her stocking


Image: Wikipedia

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.

Unknown 220px-Eleonora_di_Don_Garzia_di_Toledo_di_Pietro_de'_Medici,_by_Alessandro_Allori images-2 images-1 images

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:


Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827), Breaking Up of the Blue Stocking Club (Wikipedia)

“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 BarbauldJames BeattieFrances BoscawenHenrietta Maria BowdlerEdmund BurkeFrances BurneyElizabeth CarterMargaret Cavendish-HarleyHester ChaponeMary Delaney,Sarah FieldingDavid GarrickSamuel Johnson,Ada LovelaceCatharine MacaulayElizabeth Montagu Hannah MoreWilliam Pulteney, 1st Earl of BathClara ReeveSarah ScottSir Joshua ReynoldsCatherine TalbotHester ThraleElizabeth VeseyHorace Walpole, and Anna Williams were all part of the Bluestocking circle at one time or another.


57 thoughts on “The colour of her stocking

  1. I didn’t know that’s where the word bluestocking originated. What a shame there are no recordings of the meetings. Did James Boswell attend any? Or were those just dinners at Mrs. Thrale’s? I don’t remember his using the name…Or maybe I missed it…I wonder what happened to my Life of Johnson…I saw it last in 1970-something, I think…

    1. I couldn’t find anything that looked like minutes, Kathy, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any…I can almost hear you in the scramble for Life Of Johnson 😀 Let us all know what you find!!

  2. The paintings of Eleanor of Toledo are wonderful. The intensity of colour and expression are breathtaking. This is a genre of painting that I find mesmeric. Thanks for a fantastic post on every front, Kate. I’ve filed this one away.

  3. As you observed, Kate, those dresses are stunning. I can appreciate each and every stitch that is portrayed. The metals would have been pure – that is pure gold and pure silver. The cost unimagineable today, it would be in the millions – and just for one dress….

    As for the silk stockings….. maybe it’s just as well the ladies never met to discuss them. It might have taken more than Effingham and Drake to defeat the Spanish Armada! As for mine? They are probably blue-ish – and I’m proud of it! 😉

  4. I had no idea the Bluestockings originally was a term for mixed company! And I think perhaps, if I were to buried at all, I should like it to be in scarlet silk stockings.

      1. Hooray, got something right today! Thanks for the link, too. Bronzino is such a reliable portraitist in terms of control, colour, tone and detail, but it sounds as if he was happy to flatter his sitters when they were wealthy patrons.

    1. Me too, Lame. Looks a great shop. When I came to NY I stayed at the Algonquin: the scene of the Round Table crew. Including my heroine, Dorothy Parker. There are groups like this all over: thank goodness.

  5. that cartoon/picture is dreadful, so many heaving bosoms, one must wonder at that point whether selling papers/rags/broadsheets was not pretty high on the list of the people who promoted this vitriol.. c

  6. 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.” Sadly funny since it is true! Now I never thought of crimson stockings for burial..hmm have to rethink my exit strategy to perhaps include a little flair! 🙂

  7. I love those 18th century cartoons, Kate. I always pore over them when I see them, looking for the layers in the artwork. There’s always a main message, but like your psalter the other day, there are usually a lot of hidden gems.

    Great post.

    1. Ah, Bess, what a tough old bird 🙂 She must have been magnetic, working her way through-was it four husbands? Still, because of her skill and power we have Chatsworth…quite a legacy.

  8. The portraits of Eleanor are stunning. I wonder if her clothes were heavy. I bet they were, with all that precious metal and probably layers of petticoats and so forth. At that time, I suppose great ladies had to bear up to ninety-pound dresses with cool hauteur. I’ve heard the term “blue stocking” from time to time, and always associated it with an intellectual woman, usually an “old maid” with spectacles. I’m trying to remember if Scarlett O’Hara labeled Melanie Wilkes a blue stocking.

    1. “Why, she’s no more than a bluestocking and
      everyone knows what men think of bluestockings. . . . The way to
      get a man interested and to hold his interest was to talk about
      him, and then gradually lead the conversation around to yourself–
      and keep it there. Scarlett would have felt some cause for alarm
      if Melanie had been saying: ‘How wonderful you are!’ or ‘How do
      you ever think of such things? My little ole brain would bust if
      I even tried to think about them!’ But here she was, with a man
      at her feet, talking as seriously as if she were in church.”

      Clever, Gale 🙂 Great angle.

  9. It’s funny how those in ornate dresses are always depicted as flat-chested . . . while the blue-stocking crowd are buxom, with bosoms bouncing. 😀

  10. What interesting information! I like the idea of the blue-stocking club. I had read the phrase, but did not know it’s history.

  11. Loved this post Kate and love those paintings but I must confess that I’ve never heard the term “bluestocking” Wherever have I been?

  12. I wore stockings once – a turnabout fancy dress party. Silk, but I found them wretchedly uncomfortable. The blue variety … *shudder*
    I have used the term, but I think only approximately in the right context, after reading this!

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