Socks Through Time Part 3: Shakespeare's Embarrassing Stockings
From time to time we get a kind of strange request from various costume departments who must meet a bizarre Shakespearean wardrobe choice: Yellow Stockings Cross-Gartered. It's not often that The Bard makes specific costuming demands, but if you're putting on The Twelfth Night, it's actually an important (and humorous) plot point.
"Remember who commended thy yellow stockings, and wished to see thee cross-gartered."
A very simple version of The Look, using yarn for cross-gartering, over Opaque Tights in yellow.
Before we get into just what these stockings are, it's important to take a look at why Shakespeare wrote them into this play. If you're not familiar with it, The Twelfth Night is a comedy involving a shipwreck, separated twins, cross-dressing (and when you consider that in Shakespeare's day, all women were played by men, it's actually META cross-dressing), a love triangle, and mistaken identities -- essentially everything that makes a Shakespearean comedy ridiculous. Additionally, its name comes from the ye olde custom of celebrating the Christmas season over twelve nights of festivities.
One character -- Malvolio, the steward of the house in which most of the story unfolds -- is kind of a priggish type, and generally anti-fun. While most of the characters are making merry, he is increasingly annoyed with the festivities, and becomes the butt of the revelers' jokes. This eventually goes too far when they pull a sort of reverse-Hamlet on him (Hamlet pretended to go mad to get to the truth of his father's murder while the pranksters in Twelfth Night pretend that Malvolio has gone mad for their own entertainment), but up until that point it's all fun and games, which we can enjoy because this is fiction and nobody actually gets pranked.
Though Malvolio is not initially involved in the aforementioned love triangle, he is such a hater of other people's fun that the revelers decide to send him a letter, allegedly from the lady of the house (Olivia), asking that he prove his love by being rude to the rest of the servants, smiling constantly in the presence of Olivia, and by wearing yellow stockings cross-gartered. Given the context, it would seem that these stockings are the worst fashion faux pas Shakespeare could come up with.
I think we probably all have a pretty good idea about what yellow stockings are, but most non-shakespeareans are unfamiliar with cross-gartering (possibly because it was already going out of fashion when this play was written in 1602). Cross-gartering is essentially the practice of using a long length of ribbon (socks were just tied up with ribbons for garters in the day) and criss-crossing them around and up the legs, for an effect similar to shoe laces. You can imagine how garish this would be over yellow stockings, especially since men wore long stockings with a doublet and short breeches instead of pants at the time.
While you can certainly use the more traditional ribbons over yellow tights for this look, some productions go for less traditional options, and we have a few tricks up our sleeves as well. As I recall from a stint as a dresser backstage, there is at least one very quick wardrobe change in which Malvolio must get into his kind of fussy stockings (hence having a dresser waiting for him). Using open-work tights as a layer over the yellow tights can be a real time-saver in this situation, as you can pre-layer them. Fencenet tights evoke the diamond pattern created by cross-gartering, and we have some other diamond or lace-up patterned options. The Lima Tights in particular would really take the wind out of Malvolio's sails, as they feature a prominent bow on both sides of each calf!
If you're looking for an easy yet relatively authentic version for more traditional costuming purposes, Foot Traffic's Lace Socks With Ribbons are a good "cheat", as the lace feet make the lacing-up a no-brainer, whereas actual ribbons must be wrapped around the feet in some manner. Just be careful not to wrap too tightly, for as Malvolio himself observes, "this does make some
obstruction in the blood, this cross-gartering."