Socks Through Time Part 2: Bluestockings
If you utter the word "bluestocking" these days, most people are liable to think you're talking about socks that are blue, yet a quick look at a dictionary implies that there is a deeper history here. Just look at what Merriam Webster has to say:
noun blue·stock·ing \-ˌstä-kiŋ\
: a woman having intellectual or literary interests
"What's that about?" one may well ask. And that, dear reader, is precisely the question that we are here to answer today.
Before we get into the societal implications of the phrase, though, let's go back to our initial assumption that we're talking about blue socks. Just what kind of culturally significant socks are we referring to that became associated with intellectual women? Well, as it turns out, there were actual socks called bluestockings, and in 18th century Europe, these were the socks that most people wore. They were the stockings of common people, and were made from undyed, worsted wool. The stockings were typically light grey, which was the color of the sheep that the wool came from – this color was known as “blue” at the time, in much the same way that we refer to "blue" dobermans or "blue" heelers, neither of which are actually blue. In contrast, the upper classes distinguished themselves with fine-gauge, machine-knitted silk stockings. As has historically been the case with fashion, these items were used as class markers: a way to prevent common people from mingling with the upperclasses . To wear bluestockings in high society would be like attending a red carpet event in blue jeans.
Now let's put fashion aside for a moment to very briefly look at gender and class politics of Georgian England. As previously mentioned, "commoners" were essentially not allowed to participate in high society. Meanwhile, upper class women, who were members of said high society, were not allowed to obtain an education or participate in the intellectual conversations of their male counterparts. High society events typically involved a dinner, after which the men would break off to smoke cigars and talk politics or literature, while women were expected to play cards or work on their needlepoint in a separate room. Despite their exclusion from high society, working class men were allowed to pursue an education, and were in this way more welcome in the intellectual sphere of society than women of any social standing. Do you see where this is going?
At some point one society woman named Elizabeth Montagu grew tired of this arrangement, and decided to start her own literary society for women. Having been on the outside of the exclusionary practices of society men, Montagu made no effort to exclude men from her group. In fact she went out of her way to invite scholars from all walks of life, including those previously mentioned working class men who had access to education. Most tellings of the origin story of "bluestockings" cite the botanist Benjamin Stillingfleet as the inspiration for the term, as he couldn't afford black silk stockings. Depending on the version of the story you prefer, he was either invited to attend one of Montagu's events "in his bluestockings", or else it was during one such event when only members of high society were in attendance that somebody pointed out that they were "nowhere without blue stockings" as conversation stagnated in their absence. As it turns out, this word which is commonly (and sometimes derisively) used to describe women is actually in direct reference to the stockings of a man!
Because worsted wool stockings were the norm for common folk across Europe, we see similar (and even earlier) histories associated with the terms bas bleu (France), Blaustrumpf (Germany), and blauwkous (Netherlands). Since being coined, the phrase has been used as an insult at times, which is hardly surprising, since historically there's always been somebody trying to shut down any woman who dares to think, or any "commoner" who presumes to ignore a classist social structure. Here at SockDreams, though, we choose to associate it with good things such as breaking down barriers to free thought and social discourse.