It might be your favourite season, your cupboards bulging with crackers and wrapping from October onwards, or you might run a mile from the first strain of “Jingle Bells” and shriek at the sight of tinsel; you could be the couple who head to the Maldives for the last week of December or the parents who surrender to the inevitable. Love or hate it, the prospect of a Christmas stocking should make converts of us all.
As one whose responsibility it has long been (expensively, laboriously and sleeplessly) to stuff them, however, I’m not talking about the misshapen ones that hang from the chimney breast distorted by their cargo of tangerines, coal, novelty pants and packs of cards. Beloved though they are of children (and some adults, as long as diamonds are involved), aesthetically they are a crime against hosiery, and should be called something else. Because the real deal – the old-school, fully-fashioned and back-seamed nylon stocking, with both welt and shadow-welt at its top and French point at its heel – is my subject, and it is sacred. Beautiful, flattering, deliciously allusive and erotically infallible, stockings are a holy Christmas miracle that deserve pride of place on the top of the tree, never mind dangling from a bedpost.
With that dark, louche glamour that speaks of Brassaï and Pigalle, of Parisian doorways, back seams and heels from Maison Ernest, the sight of a beautiful pair of legs in stockings has long brought the boys (and girls) to the yard, from Claudette Colbert using them to flag down a motorist in It Happened One Night, to Shirley MacLaine (attracting roadside assistance of a different kind) in Irma la Douce, to Tim Curry and Susan Sarandon high-kicking in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The highlight of Wes Anderson’s newly released The French Dispatch is the sight of Saoirse Ronan as a depraved showgirl: blue-eyed, bubble-curled and ravishingly stockinged beneath her peignoir.
There is, of course, the younger and more practical rival to the stocking: the stay-up. They certainly have their advantages, liberating the midriff from belt and hooks and the hips from frou-frou, and simpler to slip in and out of. I have nothing at all against them in their place: until they were discontinued five years ago I was devoted to Wolford’s inky-black merino wool stay-ups, a reason if ever there was one to embrace winter. Toasty warm on the skin, St Trinian’s upper sixth meets Edwardian saucepot in their allusions, they (and their successor the Velvet de Luxe) offer the stocking’s fleeting and forbidden glimpse of pearly thigh and – last but not least – Wolfords actually stay up. And there’s the rub (or more probably the shuffle of shame, one stocking-top pinched between each finger and thumb): most stay-ups don’t.
A garter belt and stockings, on the other hand, never let anyone down, and as for the simple convenience stay-ups offer, it’s well known that – particularly where underpinnings are concerned – a little bit of seductive palaver is where delight is born. The exquisite ritual of putting on stockings, from the selection of the suspender belt (Calais lace, sleek black tulle or satin: peach or black or crimson) to the fastening of tiny rubber buttons at the welt, should be a luxurious pleasure. The queen of fully-fashioned nylon stockings, Mrs Miller (whose eponymous website flounces back from the pandemic in December) even recommends lighting a special candle for the occasion. And that’s before we even get to the undressing: for virtuoso demonstration of technique here I refer you to Sophia Loren’s striptease in Vittorio De Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, where the removal of a single stocking has Marcello Mastroianni speechless and gibbering with desire against a pink velvet headboard. So this Christmas let’s make like a starlet, roll out the red carpet, pull on the stockings and put a match to the fire.
Christobel Kent is a Gold Dagger-nominated author. She has lived in Essex, Modena, Florence and Cambridge and has written seventeen novels, ten of which are set in Italy. Her latest novel, The Widower,
came out in May