Why Were Their Stockings Blue?
In the 1700s, wearing warm-and-woolly
dark blue worsted stockings rather than the
black silk stockings of formal, citified fashion
was the equivalent of wearing jeans today.
It was the common denominator
of casual dress. But how did the term bluestocking
come to mean a literary woman?
Scholars tell us
that the relationship between society and stockings
goes as far back as the 1400s, when an elite salon
of learned Venetians were labeled della calza
(literally of the stocking) because of
their elaborately embroidered leg coverings.
the late 1500s, the fashion had spread to Paris
where the term bas bleu (bas, stocking;
bleu, blue) emerged to describe women with
literary aspirations. (In the mid-1800s, the French
caricaturist/satirist Honoré Daumier published
a series of scathing political cartoons about Les
The English term bluestocking
meaning a literary woman evolved in the mid-to-late
1700s. Women of society were beginning to express
their boredom with being sent off to do their embroidery,
rather than being invited to engage in conversation
with the men. One early bluestocking, a Miss
As if the two sexes had been
in a state of war, the gentlemen ranged themselves
on one side of the room, where they talked their
own talk, and left us poor ladies to twirl our shuttles,
and amuse each other, by conversing as we could.
By what little I could overhear, our opposites were
discoursing on the old English poets, and this subject
did not seem so much beyond a female capacity but
that we might have been indulged with a share of
about 1750, Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu (later called the
Queen of the Blues) and her friends founded
the first official bluestocking society in England.
They invited learned men to gather informally with
them to talk about books, literature, art and architecture,
as well as places and events that interested them.
The story goes that this literary salon
enjoyed society in undress that
is, in their more practical country clothing, most
notably their blue worsted stockings. Hence, the term
bluestocking. Perhaps to show off their
knowledge of French, the members of the club often
referred to themselves as Bas Bleu.
James Boswell, the renowned biographer
of Dr. Samuel Johnson and contemporary of Mrs. Montagu,
... the fashion for several
ladies to have evening assemblies, where the fair
sex might participate in conversation with literary
and ingenious men, animated by the desire to please...
were denominated Bluestocking Clubs.
1769, Horace Walpole called Mrs. Montagus original
Bluestocking Society the first public female
club ever known and added that most of the ladies
were of the greatest beauty, and most of the
young men of fashion were of the club.
Although many prominent men of letters
frequented the early bluestocking gatherings
and, in fact, Mr. Benjamin Stillingfleet is said to
be the first person to have worn blue stockings to
a meeting Bluestocking came to be associated
The terms connotation is often
less than positive: bluestockings are sometimes pictured
partly due to Daumiers poison pen
as unfeminine, pedantic, humorless, and self-important.
But the letters of the original Bluestockings
paint a distinctly different picture. R. Brimley Johnson
concludes in the introduction to his 1926 book, Bluestocking
Always ladies, never pedants,
they regarded life with intelligence and common
sense, formed their own opinions, followed their
own tastes; and accomplished something towards the
ideal of a gay and frank comradeship with brilliant
and learned men.
owe a lot to these women!
And what did Lord Byron have to say
about all this?
Lord Byron had this cynical view
of the Bluestockings:
The Blues, that tender tribe,
who sigh oer sonnets
And with the pages of the last Review
Line the interior of their heads or bonnets,
Advanced in all their azures highest hue.
They talked bad French of Spanish and upon its
Late authors asked him for a hint or two.
And which was softest, Russian or Castilian,
And whether in his travels he saw Ilion.