Tights Connection to the Beginning of Ballet:

By Adrian Clarke, L.O.C.A.D. – Library of Costume and Design

It might be a while before the budding ballet star in your life will make that all important decision about which pair of tights to wear for that upcoming all important performance or exam. Which should you choose, Capezio, Bloch, PW Dance & Sportswear or Energetiks? Well you might muse over the interesting fact that tights are our tangible connection to Ballet’s origin. They are the oldest item of clothing with the longest tradition in use. They have evolved in accordance to needs benefitting from the latest advances in technology and production methods.

As the ‘Medieval’ era drew to its close a new one was coming to the fore. This was to begin in the great cities of Northern Italy, and Florence, in particular, is looked upon as the birthplace of what was to become known as the ‘Renaissance’. In fact, Italy was to be ahead of its other European contemporaries by a century. The Italian Renaissance was from 1300 to 1700 when the Western European Renaissance was to be 1400 to 1700.

The French term, ‘Renaissance’ is derived from the Latin word, ‘Renarto’ meaning ‘Rebirth’. This was in reference to the apparent restructuring of thinking surrounding social and cultural norms. It manifested in the way of the then European society beginning to turn to the ‘Sciences’ and shedding the yoke of superstition as exacted by the Roman Catholic Church which ironically was the biggest patron of both science and the arts. Furthermore, it saw the ‘Arts’ become more secular in its approach and content. No longer were the ‘Arts’ preoccupied with the eternal struggle of the immortal soul, instead it began to deal with a variety of subject matters such as ‘Classic Mythology’ of the ancient Romans and Greeks along with the rise of ‘Portraiture’ when before it was considered to be ‘idolatrous’ for such images. It was even to go far as to depict more ‘Real’ issues concerning with everyday life, both urban and rustic.

This ‘Rebirth’ of the collective social conscience was to fuel a resurgence of public theatrics both in the courts of many grand palaces as well as in the market places and town squares. This impacted on the performing arts – music, dance, literature and drama in all their forms. For the story of Ballet, this new ‘Artistic Awakening’ was particularly important.

Today, tights are worn by both genders in Ballet, but several centuries ago they were worn exclusively by men of all ranks, from peasants to Royals, since the ‘Dark Ages’. Originally called “Hosen” or “Stocks” (English); “Chausses” or “Chausson” (French), were made close fitting as possible for very practical reasons such as when riding on horseback. They were made from wool, cotton, linen and silk, or a combination with linen/cotton mix the most common. It is important to point out that tights were mostly cut from woven fabrics, sometimes on the bias. There was even a particular polished cotton fabric called ‘Lisle’ woven in Ireland that was in regular use for stocks. They were often particoloured with each leg in a different colour or multicoloured. These colours would be arranged in a variety of ways – patterns, vertical stripes, horizontal bands or a combination of all. Design was only limited by the hosier’s skill or the wearer’s purse string.

The hand-knitted chausses were only worn by those who could afford them. These were knitted in wool and cotton, with the smooth tightly twisted ‘Lisle’ cotton yarn favoured as an affordable option to silk. The ‘Chausson de Soyeux” (Silk Stocks), were highly prized as knitted by the most skilled artisans, often multi-coloured, patterned or with motifs of intricate design called, “Quirks”.

Fig. 01
Sermon_and_Deeds_of_the_Antichrist_(Detail)_1499_1502.adjThis distinction in the two modes of stocks seem best describe the differing characteristics of the two worlds that would influence Ballet at its inception. One of these worlds the opulent surrounds of ‘Court Entertainment’ and its many spectacles. All dressed in rich silk brocades with gold or silver thread embroideries worn over the finest silk hosiery one could afford. This was contrasted by the other being of the sombre and harsh realities experienced in cityscapes of the streets, taverns and town squares. This was the familiar world of the ‘Commedia dell’Arte’, a street theatre inhabited by the many travelling troupes of troubadours, actors and performers that had to live by the grace of their wit. Dressed in whatever they could beg, steal or permanently borrow. Their stocks were often pieced together from what fabric remnant they could acquire, rendering them colourful like the one pictured, fig. 01, and instantly recognisable to audiences. One parent was born of nobles and Royals when the other parent was born from vagabonds and rogues. The latter however, would rise to a position of professional respectability, one of vocation of the ‘Actor’. Both were important to Ballet, as the ‘Court Dance’ would give us the ‘Steps’, and the ‘Commedia’ would give the earliest traditions concerning ‘Gestures’ and ‘Costumes’.

The traditions of costume design for the various characters of the ‘Commedia’, in conjunction with the convention of ‘Court Dress’, would form the basis of costumes for ‘Ballet’ and later, ‘La Comédie Française’ as they evolved within the French Royal Court of the late 16th and 17th Centuries respectively. The ‘Commedia’ was to give early Ballet three costuming traditions that were to last for over two centuries – ‘Character Dress’, ‘Masks’ and ‘En Travesti’ (cross dressing).

Fortunately for early Ballet, contrary to popular belief, stocks with a crotch included were the norm at the turn of the 16th Century. However, in saying that, there was a shift in how these were worn and constructed over the course of the 1500s. These changes came with various new terms of reference to accommodate the new variations. During the 1300s and 1400s, Hosen, the plural form, or Stocks basically were anything that covered the legs, but not always including the feet. They were made as a pair of leggings held in place by a belt like chaps, or were made as a singular garment with a crotch and a centre front opening that was covered with a cod piece or small fall front flap. The latter would eventually become the norm as already stated.

By the mid-1500s, hosen would undergo changes rather quickly and dramatically. For starters they would become two separate garments. Then they would be adjusted in accordance to lengths. The upper crotch part of the hosen became the ‘Trunk Hosen’, later to become ‘Breeches’, when the now leggings became ‘Stockis’ or ‘Stockings’. Note how the two words came to mean two very different garments. However, it didn’t stop there. ‘Stockings’ were knitted either with a crotch or as leggings to mid-thigh secured by garters to be worn under or over a trunk-hose. ‘Netherstocks’, a pair of leggings also knitted came a little above the knee and also held in place by garters, often worn under or over ‘Cannions’, tubular thigh-hugging extensions from a trunk-hose. ‘Stocks’ or ‘Base Stocks’, again knitted were worn like long socks to the knees held in place with garters or ‘flashes’. These were usually worn with a pant-like garment commonly called, “Slops”. Bear in mind, the term ‘Stockings’ was a generic term as well referring to any knitted leggings. Furthermore, there was added confusion with the knitted stockings with a crotch also called ‘Trunks’ or ‘Trunk Stockings’.

Women would also begin to wear stockings in the latter half of the 16th Century but never to cover their legs completely or with a crotch when dressed for Court. For with a crotch, one, it would infer the lady was ‘cross-dressing’, and two, it had to do with the practicality of going to the little ladies’ room. For any lady, encumbered by wearing layers of petticoats over a hooped ‘Farthingale’ would have had a difficult time in removing a crotch stocking.

The last quarter of the 16th Century saw Ballet began to develop momentum as a performance art of Royal Court Entertainment. This was exemplified by what is regarded as the first ballet, ‘Le Balet Comique de la Royne’ (The Queen’s Comique Dance) in 1581. The performance included the Queen Louise of France with her ladies-in-waiting to help celebrate a Royal Wedding at the French Court. The advantage of such a courtly pursuit for the dancers was that they were provided with the very best what money could buy, silk stockings. The dancers wore stockings of all variations and in accordance with the convention of Court Dress. Royal Court Convention would continue to impact on Ballet well into the 18th Century.

The availability of stockings would be further helped following the invention of the ‘Stocking Frame Knitting Machine’ in 1589. It was devised by an English clergyman, William Lee of Calverton near the city of Nottingham. Its use was to eventually become known as “Framework Knitting” and would be for centuries with the principle of its operation remaining in use today. This was also the earliest beginnings in the mechanisation of the textiles trade some two centuries before the start of the ‘Industrial Revolution’ in the late 18th Century.

Lee gave a demonstration in the operation of the device to Queen Elizabeth, in the hope to be granted a patent. The Queen refused, however, for fearing the impact it would have on the established hand knitting industry. A concern already expressed to her by several Hosiers’ Guilds as Lee’s Invention became public knowledge. It also didn’t help that the machine produced an unimpressive loose, coarse knitted fabric that was made into a pair of seamed stockings. The original frame had only 8 needles to the inch, so Lee would later improve the mechanism by installing 20 needles to the inch. By 1598, Lee’s new improved machine could knit stockings of fine quality in silk and cotton, as well as wool, but was once again refused a patent by Elizabeth, and later King James I & VI.

Lee still determined, entered into a partnership agreement with George Brooks on 6 June, 1600, but this failed to come to fruition as the unfortunate Brooks was arrested on a charge of treason and later executed. Eventually, Lee moved to France with his brother, James, accompanied by nine workers and frames. There he found better support from the French King, Henri IV, who granted him a patent. Lee began stocking manufacture in Rouen, France, and prospered as such would enter a contract with Pierre de Caux about 1609-10 to provide knitting machines for the manufacture of silk and woollen stockings with the condition he had the continued support from the Crown. The agreement would collapse due to the King’s assassination in 1610 that would later trigger another Catholic insurgence as King Henri was a Protestant Huguenot even though was baptised a Catholic. With this abrupt change in the political climate following the king’s death and despite him moving to Paris to seek favour from the Queen Regent, Marie de Médicis, the mother of the future King Louis XIII, his claims of a ‘Crown’s Warrant’ were ignored and would later die in 1614. After Lee’s death, his brother, James, with most of the workers returned to England and disposed of most of the frames in London before moving to Thoroton near Nottingham.

The commercial failure of Lee’s design seemed destined with the demise of the framework knitting machine, but John Ashton, one of Lee’s apprentices, continued to work on the machine and made a number of improvements, importantly by adding the mechanism known as a “Divider”. This led to the establishment of two knitting centres in London and in Nottingham, thus giving rise to a viable industry in the mechanised production of stockings in England, and subsequently for Europe. This would soon place the newly formed United Kingdom of England, Ireland and Scotland at an unprecedented lucrative position of manufacturing dominance over France, which originally had such a stranglehold for so long in terms of the textile manufacturing industries. This lost opportunity simply added to the list of other political and economic blunders made by the Queen Regent who was eventually deposed seven years later by her own son, the King. The Royal Treasury wasn’t happy with losing revenue; evidently there was a lot of money in stockings.

With all that historical background, the point is that mechanised production of hosiery had arrived. The machine knitted stockings would become known as “Jersey Stockings” or “Trunk Jerseys” or “Maillots Anglaises” in French. The terms of Jersey and Maillot (pron. My-yo), referred to the type of knit used in the manufacture. These were to grace the legs of dancers of the now Grand Court Ballets of King Louis XIII. In fact, King Louis himself would perform in some of these ballets, so the King himself would have worn a pair or two of English Silk Jerseys.

By this time, these were already worn by both genders and fortunately at that as the nature in costuming of these early ballets. For the ladies, these were sometimes not leaving much to the imagination. ‘Maillots’ (Trunks/Tights) were invariably to be made with a crotch incorporated would become the standard for Ballet. However, the focus of these ballets was on the men not the women. This focus would be later ensured by the all-male casts with women’s participation only by permission or royal request. This had to do with the inferred immorality of women performing on stage. This was also combined with the belief that the fairer sex lacked the physical prowess to perform in such athletic pursuits like the Ballet. Yet would like to see how the male courtiers of the day perform the same feats wearing the obligatory excessive layers of women’s court dress? Regardless, the new stockings complimented this focus perfectly as the vogue for young men was the figure hugging hosiery to help show-off their natural muscularity advertising their athleticism, be it true or false. Men would have a fascination for well-developed calf muscles, fuelled by an established custom of wearing “False Calves” underneath one’s stockings by those lacking size. This would be the case for the next century and some.

It is important to point out over the course of the 17th and 18th Centuries further distinction between hosiery and tights was to develop. Now with women wearing hosiery, each mode of construction was slowly to be engendered with greater variations. ‘Bonneterie’ (Hosiery) or ‘Bas de Soie’ (Silk Stockings) usually made as liken to socks, were also made in three lengths: to the knee, just above the knee or mid-thigh all held in place with garters. Their feminine distinction would be by the quality and delicacy of design.

1794 Vigano as TerpsichoreThe last decade of the 18th Century, 1790s, did see maillots take on the semblance how tights are used today. This was reflective of the new aesthetic in the Arts. The pursuit of the Classical Ideals from Antiquity of the Greeks and Romans would manifest in the desire for cleaner natural line of the legs. It was also when one of the first indications of ‘nude’ hosiery as worn by Maria Vigano. She was to dance with her brother, Salvatore, and shock audiences in Paris with a ‘Classical Greek’ inspired costume of a softly draped tunic of sheer white muslin falling over her body and legs that were only covered by hosiery of a flesh pink colour insinuating an eroticism of near nakedness. This was met with controversy, speculation and adoration. However, the new conservatism of the early 19th Century soon had dancers of the Ballet once more respectably dressed.

Fashion-wise, hosiery for men would eventually be phased out for everyday wear by the end of the first decade of the 19th Century only to be used for formal evening attire and ceremonial occasions. By the 1820s, long ‘Stovepipe’ pants were the norm for men and worn for all occasions other than by livery servants of palatial homes and for the coronations both in England and France.
Fig. 03
dancer_adjusting_her_tights-largeHosiery was now strictly in the domain of the feminine gender outside the spectrum of Ballet and Theatre. Also the English term Tights began to be used as a distinction from hosiery. By this time, both male and female dancers were expected to wear special shorts over tights to help diffuse any inferred eroticism. This was a century old custom already observed by female dancers of the Opéra. This inference wasn’t helped either by the re-occurring vogue of ‘Nude Pink’ as started by the ‘Viganos’ in the 1790s. At times, the Paris Opéra would ban the use of pink tights due to these same social concerns. This was futile, as towards the end the 19th Century ‘Ballet Pink’ tights were the norm. Tights would develop over the remainder of the 19th Century entering the 20th with little change.

Little before the First World War about 1911-12, new fibres that were often marketed as ‘Artificial Silk’, began being used for a variety of textiles. These were ‘Acetate’ and ‘Rayon’. ‘Rayon’ was started being used for hosiery and tights making these cheaper than those of silk. Despite being more affordable and the clever marketing, Ballet was to abandon wearing these as were prone to ‘sagging’, creating unflattering folds over the legs, behind the knees and around the ankles. It just wasn’t a good look.

The next advancement wasn’t to occur until 1935 with the development of ‘Polymer 6.6’ by the E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, commonly referred to as “DuPont”. It was introduced to the public via the World Fair of 1939 in New York as ‘Nylon’ for the manufacture of hosiery under the slogan of “As Strong as Steel, as Fine as Spider’s Web!” Their release into the market was met with such popular success, it was recorded up to 4 million pairs were purchased in one day. Furthermore, the development of the new fibre, ‘Nylon’, would later have a far greater impact on ballet costume design and manufacture in the years to come. This, however, is a different story to that of tights.

The name was coined using the letters from the initials, ‘NY & L’ for New York and London, followed by a suffix of ‘- on’ as from other fibres like ‘rayon’ and ‘cotton’. The reason behind the reference to the two cities is unclear. It is generally accepted it was due to where the two teams of chemists involved in the research and ultimately to ‘Nylon’s’ development were based; with the climax of the years of research occurring at the DuPont Headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware. The other reason was tied into the planned intention of its release into the market, first in New York to be followed by London.
Unfortunately, London never got the chance and this introduction by DuPont was to be short lived due to the outbreak of the Second World War. As a result, all production of ‘Nylon’ was to be diverted to the manufacture of various supplies, mainly for the U.S. Military and Allies. ‘Nylon’ proved versatile as a fibre, it was used for vehicle tyres, ropes, wet weather garments and parachutes in order to name a few. When the war ended nylon tights and hosiery returned, however, in spite of being finely knitted, these had little ‘give’ in them thus were made in a range of half sizes to help accommodate the varying leg shapes and lengths.
In 1959, DuPont would come to the rescue again with another development, giving us the familiar stretchy tights we know today. This was of course ‘Lycra’ and revolutionising tights, making them exacting in the fit with a minimum of fuss ever since. With these Lycra tights would have the French replace the term, ‘Maillot’ with ‘Collant’ which inferred the notion of them clinging to the legs when worn. This is with the added expectation for ‘Tights’ to be made with a ‘denier’ greater than 40, when ‘Hosiery’ is less.

‘Denier’ is a unit of measure used to assess the linear mass density in filament fibres. It is defined by the weight in grams per 9,000 metres. By custom, it is based on the natural standard defined as a single strand of silk is one denier. That silk strand is 9,000 metres which equals the weight of one gram. Silk is a natural monofilament fibre and when unravelled from its source, a cocoon, it is a singular continuous strand with a beginning and end. The use of measuring with the denier unit it is usually applied to knitted textiles such as tights and hosiery, but is also applied to nets and tulles or any ‘silk like’ textiles.

There is a notion about tights that must be dispelled even though it can be forgiven. This is how some regard tights as underwear. This stems from how women’s hosiery in fashion is sold as lingerie with bras and underwear. Ballet tights, however, are not lingerie, but leg covering as how they were originally worn and should never be regarded as ‘Underwear’.

So there you have it, hopefully you now have decided on what tights to purchase for your protégé be it in cotton or nylon Lycra. Hope this has proven to be an enlightening read in regard to the story of tights. Something every female dancer now takes for granted as a necessary item of clothing once began as an exclusive item for men! Who knew…?

This article incorporates text derived or information sourced from the following:                  “Encyclopaedia Britannica”

“Four Centuries of Machine Knitting: Commemorating William Lee's Invention of the Stocking Frame in 1589” (Knitting International, Leicester 1989), J.T. Millington & Stanley Chapman (eds).

 “William Lee and the Invention of the Knitting Frame”, Negley Harte

"Lee, William (LY579W)". A Cambridge Alumni Database, University of Cambridge

 "William Lee inventor of the framework knitting machine", Hucknall-Torkard.com
Archived from the original on May 17, 2011

“Patterns of Fashion: the cut and construction of clothes for men and women 1560-1620”, Janet Arnold
ISBN: 0-333-38284-6, macmillan, 1985.

“The Magic of Dance”, Margot Fonteyn
ISBN: 0 563 17645 8, BBC, 1980.

“Ballet Designs and Illustrations”, Brian Reade
© Crown Copyright, Victoria & Albert Museum, 1967

“A History of Women’s Underwear”, Cécil Saint-Laurent
ISBN: 981 204 610 0, Times Edition, reprinted 1995

“The Lure of Pefection: Fashion and Ballet, 1780 – 1830”
Judith Chazin-Bennabaum, Routledge, 2004
ISBN 10: 0415970385 ISBN 13: 9780415970389

“Textiles for Modern Living”, Gohl & Vilensky
ISBN: 0 582 68831 0, 3rd Ed., Longman Cheshire, 1983

Publication by DuPont (Context, vol. 7, no. 2, 1978)

Fig. 01
– Detail from the fresco, “The Sermon and the Deeds of the Antichrist” by Luca Signorelli, 1499 -1502. Chapel of San Brizio, Piazza del Duomo, Orvieto, Italy.
Fig. 02
– "Maria Medina Vigano as Terpsichore", Illustration by Josef Dorffmeister, Engraving by Carl Hermann Pfeiffer, 1794. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library, Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e2-6fdf-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Fig. 03
– “Dancer Adjusting Her Tights” aka “First Pair of Tights” by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1890. Private Collection.