MALVOLIO: “Remember who commended thy yellow stockings, and wished to see thee ever cross-gartered: I say, remember.” (Twelfth Night)

In Twelfth Night, yellow stockings are a recurring theme, as are references to being “cross-gartered.” In “Malvolio's Yellow Stockings: Coding Illicit Sexuality in Early Modem London,” Loreen L. Giese asserts that “stockings in this period were also not limited since they varied in terms of material, design, color, and usage.” As Joan Thirsk points out, many different kinds of stockings were made to suit all purses and purposes. Nevertheless, the wearing of yellow stockings had particular resonance, as two well-known usages suggest. The wearing of yellow stockings may be most commonly associated with two contexts: the children at Christ's Hospital, which opened in 21 November 1552 and was officially founded on 26 June 1553, and the dramatic figure MalvoUo in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, the first performance of which was 6 January 1601/2. Indeed, evidence of this sartorial practice from other literary and legal texts supplements and refines our understanding of their meaning by indicating the sexual symbolism of wearing yellow stockings in early modem London. Specifically, this evidence indicates that some early modem Londoners understood the wearing of yellow stockings to signal illicit sexuality and marital betrayal.”

She says it is worth noting that Leshe Hotson interpreted the issue a little differently, claiming that Queen Elizabeth hated yellow. “For six years yellow had been the colour of danger in her Court—being fiaunted by the faction of the Duke of Norfolk until his attainder and execution in 1572. And the flag of her arch-enemy, Spain, was yellow.”

It turns out that there is a lot of scholarly debate around yellow stockings. Here’s some additional context:

In The rise and fall of sumptuary laws: Rules for dressing in Shakespeare’s England, Karen Lyon tells us this story about a man who was arrested for padding his calves beneath his stockings. There were very strict laws about what could or not could be worn in England at this time, and there was surprisingly a lot of pressure on men to dress in certain ways:

“In 1565, a man named Richard Walweyn was detained for wearing ‘a very monsterous and outraygous greate payre of hose.’ While the arrest record does not reveal what the officers found ‘monsterous and outraygous’ about Walweyn’s hose, scholar Amanda Bailey suggests that he may have been guilty of padding his calves, in deference to an Elizabethan fad for shapely legs. As a member of ‘the meaner sort’ (e.g., a servant), Walweyn would, like apprentices and students, not be permitted to wear stockings that were stuffed with more than a yard and three quarters of material.”

Elizabethans had a fad for shapely legs. This gives us some insight into the significance of stockings. In “Clothing in Elizabethan England,” Lisa Picard writes: “the Elizabethan era saw men’s clothes depart more widely from their physique than in any other time. At least if you had good legs – and they were important – you could show them off up to crotch level.”