Vertically striped socks, or how I felt the fear and did it anyway

By beatrice behlen on 4 Feb 2010

Skeleton suit boy is still being mended so I thought I’d tell you what I’ve been doing last weekend.

For some time now I’m obsessed with vertically striped socks because we had to find some for one of our Pleasure Garden gents. Meet William Oxtoby, 23 years of age, dandy on the make, trying to find love, preferably with a rich heiress. He is wearing his best suit: blue-green shot silk suit with silk embroidery from the 1770s, which no doubt he would have accessorised with vertically striped hosiery.

This type of fancy stocking seem to have been particularly fashionable in the 1770s and 1780s, check out the fashion plates below and also Charles James Fox in this print of 1788 (one of my favourite Museum of London objects).

1787 French fashion plate showing promenade suit1779 French fashion plate

They have also been mentioned on fashion blogs for a while now and even appeared in Alexander McQueen’s 2009 autumn RTW collection (that’s probablywhy they’re so hot at the moment). Nevertheless the only stockings we found that would have worked well with the colouring of the suit were from a re-enactment site in the US and … they were out of stock (haha).

So I turned to the dress curator’s best friend: ebay. Thankfully Emos and Goths also seem to be fond of vertical strips and I found two pairs for only £3.50 each with high cotton content. The last bit was important because I thought we might have to do some customisation.

White and black socks from ebayFuchsia and black socks from ebay

The black stripes turned out to be too harsh for the suit and the fuchsia was just ludicrous and too 21st century. Hilary heard that theatrical costumiers sometimes use bleach to get different colours so I thought I’d have a go.

Apparently thin bleach without additives is best, which is actually not that easy to find but I eventually got lucky in Waitrose. So on Saturday I assembled my bleaching kit. I am actually quite scared of bleach (well, one should be) so I wasn’t looking forward to this. HEALTH WARNING: bleach can be dangerous so do not try this at home without following the guidelines on the bottle.

I took all the necessary precautions: I had gloves (never do washing up without my Marygolds), a poking stick (well, a cooking utensil, really) and I kept my bathroom well ventilated, not much fun in this kind of weather.

My bleaching kit

According to one website, the recommended mix is 4 parts water and 1 part bleach, which seemed a bit excessive, so I started with a much lower dose. Apparently things were supposed to happen within 15 minutes but I poked and poked and watched and watched but the black stripes stubbornly stayed black (I started with the b/w pair, didn’t want to ruin them both). After 30 minutes or so and after increasing the bleach content several times, I just left the stockings to their own devices, occasionally checking up on them and doing a pit more poking.

After more than an hour the black seemed to slowly turn into brown and once the process started the socks lightened up quite quickly. After a good wash we now have stockings with medium brown and white stripes, still not ideal, but an improvement. After another trip to Waitrose the next day (the glamour!), I had a go with the fuchsia ones, but the dark pink dye was even more difficult. Have a look at the result.

Fuchsia and black socks after bleaching

I think the stockings are still too bright but I have not yet held them against the suit yet. If it doesn’t work we might have to dye the brown/white ones, maybe purple, or blue-green-ish to match the suit but I think I will spare you the description of that process.

So, when you come to the Pleasure Garden display in our new gallery (open from the end of May), look out for fancy hosiery and, if you like, tell me what you think.

3 thoughts on “Vertically striped socks, or how I felt the fear and did it anyway

  1. Janet E Davis says:

    Did you think of trying it the other way round, of adding colour to plain cotton socks? If you put card inside the socks so could get straight lines and stop dye bleeding through to other layer, you could use a paint-on dye.
    Don’t forget if dyeing the ready-striped ones that you’ve bleached that dye is an additive colour so whatever colour you add will go over and change the hue of existing colours. If you added a pale blue dye to the ochre & pink socks, they could turn darker brown and purple-mauve.

  2. Beatrice says:

    Hi Janet, I had not thought of doing it the other way round. I’m not sure my hand would be steady enough. But it is a good suggestion.
    The bleached ones are still a bit strong and we could do with something a little paler, so I’d probably start with a pastel shade. I might have a look what kind of colours are around at the weekend and will mull this over. Thanks!

  3. Grace Elliot says:

    Lovely post – I adore the amount of trouble you have gone to for the right detail. Good on you.

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