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Rolled Stockings, Bees Knees, And All That Jazz

By , 18 March, 2009, 13 Comments

The first time I heard the song And All That Jazz from the movie Chicago, the line, “I’m gonna rouge my knees. And roll my stockings down,” struck me… Did women once rouge their knees?

Zeta-Jones wearing rolled stockings in Chicago

Zeta-Jones wearing rolled stockings in Chicago

Yes, Virginia, like courtesans who rouged their breasts (or, more accurately, their areolas), flappers heightened the color of, and therefore the attention to, their knees. My guess is though, that they rouged post placement of their stockings. *wink*

1920-flapper-wearing-rolled-stockings

Woman From The 1920s Wearing Rolled Stockings

Why were knees so important? Well, as we (I hope) all know, the 1920’s were about female liberation, especially in terms of fashion. Gone were the bustles and skirts which rendered women unable to enjoy even the simple joy of riding bicycles. Without the bottom part of the hourglass, less emphasis was put on the top half, and corsets which whittled waists and pronounced bust lines were escaped.

Now, I’m not against corsets or figure forming via foundation garments, but if it’s not fashion but rather enforcement which limits activities, akin to foot binding, then I’m not a fan. And to some extent, Victorian dress was as much about women’s place in society as it was the placement of breasts — about the ease and accessibility to life and their own sexuality.

Naturally, such freedom would lead to a mocking fashion frivolity in which women, especially young women, would relish in the abandonment of fashion’s constraints & an exploitation of fashion loopholes such as higher hemlines to express themselves, their attitudes and their intentions to live life fully.

Where once legs and even ankles had remained lily white in the dark shadows of skirts, now flappers dared to bare. They exposed skin to kisses of sunlight, trading the pasty pallor of invalids for the rosy complexions of those who lived life fully. As skin kissed by sunlight is also exposed to kisses from beaus, flappers used bare skin and its coloring to garner attentions and announce intentions. Like bees to flowers, flappers drew admiring glances and those that gave them. They used the natural appeal of revealing what had so recently been forbidden to see — and they used the artificial appeal of cosmetics.

It’s no coincidence that a more portable & easier to apply form of lipstick (in the tube) and other cosmetics (in compacts) were made at this time. And as odd as it may seem to us to color the knees, legs were all the rage so why not color & accentuate them?

Legs were so much the rage in the roaring 20’s that there was even the expression, “the bees knees” which means Its origins aren’t completely clear, but two theories seem possible…

One is that because bees carry pollen back to their hives in sacs found in the middle of their legs (the ‘knee’, if you will), the phrase alludes to the goodness to be found around the bee’s knee. Euphemistically, it’s racy; which certainly fits the 1920’s. And it reminds me of those lines from Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise:

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Speaking of dancers…

Another possibility for the origins of “the bee’s knees” may be found in the dancing legs of Bee Jackson. Jackson, once a member of the Follies, is said to be the first white girl to feature the dance we all associate with the 20’s and flappers, the Charleston.

Dancer Bee Jackson

Dancer Bee Jackson

Bee Jackson went on to become a world Charleston champion and her legs were insured for a whopping $10,000. Surely the glimpses of this Bee’s knees could garner a catchphrase along with admiring glances and erotic thoughts, and inspire other young ladies to dance and to show off their legs with short hemlines.

Obviously, such states of fashionable undress were seen as brazen & inappropriate by many; and not all women dressed (or acted) like flappers. While the moral majority & fashion minority may not have agreed, everyone knew of flappers and rolled stockings. In fact, there was even a 1927 film called Rolled Stockings.

Rolled Stockings Movie Poster

Rolled Stockings Movie Poster

The film stared the fabulous and iconic Louise Brooks as Carol Fleming, the girl two boys — actually brothers — Jim and Ralph Treadway (James Hall, Richard Arlen), fall in love with. The movie is believed to be lost, so not only have I never seen it, but don’t know a soul who has. However, there are a few remnants of its existence, such as promotional photos like this one:

Promotional Louise Brooks Photo

Promotional Louise Brooks Photo

You’ll no doubt notice that lovely Lulu is not wearing rolled stockings — but the irony continues! According to Hal Erickson:

Not unexpectedly, one of the publicity photos taken for this film was a close-up of a pair of rolled stockings, ostensibly filled by the trim legs of Louise Brooks; in fact, Brooks refused to pose for this cheesecake shot, whereupon her legs were “doubled” by her co-star, Nancy Phillips.

Rather strange for a woman who posed for nude photos… I guess completely bare equals “artistic nude” while rolled stocking promotional photos are exploitative? Or maybe she thought rolled stockings ruined the lines of a lady’s leg?

In any case, I can’t find a single photo of Louise with rolled stockings — but here’s one of Louise with her younger sister, June, who is wearing rolled stockings.

Louise Brooks (L) and Sister June (R)

Louise Brooks (L) and Sister June (R)

June looks so sweet — like a young woman wearing knee-highs, not some risqué flapper. But that’s just the way time — and stockings — roll by… *wink*

Reproduction Rolled Stockings Movie Poster

Reproduction Rolled Stockings Movie Poster

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13 Responses {+}
  • Raquelle

    THank you so much for this informative post! I forwarded the link to a few people and put it on Twitter. :-)

    I’ve always wondered about “bee’s knees” and the scenarios you present make sense.

  • Fleur

    Fascinating post!

  • The Horny Time Traveler

    Great post! I heard about it from Raquelle on Twitter. I wrote about flappers on my own blog recently; the potency of their allure seems to be growing as the years go by…some nice photos here, so thanks for sharing them.

  • Thursday's Child

    What a fascinating post – I love learning about things like this!

  • The Bee’s Knees | Sex. Shoes.

    […] knees” or why rouged knees and rolled stockings came into fashion? Wonder no more – read this wonderfully informative blogpost by Jaynie Van Roe and revel in the freedom of the Roaring 20’s! You’ll want to bob your hair, free your […]

  • The Midnight Palace

    I believe the “Woman From The 1920s Wearing Rolled Stockings: may be Clara Bow

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  • m40

    There are instances of this being used well before the roaring 20’s, and particularly in the UK. It’s thought to be a bastardization of yet another piece of slang. A common compliment was to call someone or something the “Be All, and End All”. This was abbreviated to the slang term where you simply told someone they were “the B’s & E’s”. Saying this quickly sounds very much like “Bee’s Knees”.

  • Jaynie Van Roe

    m40, If what you say is true, I can’t exactly disprove it… Though I’ve never heard of “the B’s and E’s” (which doesn’t exactly fit the original phrase, does it), I would allow for the possibility.

    I suppose that it’s also possible that a saying on one side of the pond might be changed/affected/muddied on the other side.

    Many sayings are even more confusing in their development than can ever really be documented… Look at what happens to song lyrics — people all over are singing “there’s a bathroom on the right” etc. etc. And even with the internet, no one can claim to be the one who gave birth to this saying or that.

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    […] Yes, Virginia, like courtesans who rouged their breasts (or, more accurately, their areolas), flappers heightened the color of, and therefore the attention to, their knees. My guess is though, that they rouged post placement of their stockings.  […]

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