Bloom remembers his adolescent daydream of being a ladies’ shoefitter in Manfield and Son on Grafton Street. He admired the Parisian “cobweb hose” on their wax model “Raymonde”.
Cobweb hosiery did not, as we might have expected, imply stockings decorated with a cobweb motif, or made in a wide, loose-knit cobweb-like design.
The noun “cobweb” had been applied to “light, finely-woven or gauze-like material” (OED) since the early seventeenth century. The association is with the light, sheer texture of cobweb:
What idle giddy-headed braines are under those large and fine cob-web-veiles.
James Mabbe's translation of Fernando de Rojas' Spanish Bawd, Act 1 p. 7
Thomas Carlyle fantasises about “cobweb hose” in 1829:
This French virtuoso had found that cobwebs were worth something, could even be woven into silk stockings: whereupon, he exhibits a very handsome pair of cobweb hose to the Academy, [and] is encouraged to proceed with the manufacture.
Foreign Review (1829), vol. 3 No. 5 p. 124
and the Nottingham Journal of 1846 compares English “cobweb hose” with the delicate silk stockings of the Chinese:
The cobweb hose made in England are the scorn of the Chinese, who knit silk hose of hard-spun silk, weighting from six to eight ounces per pair, many of which will wear five years.
Cited in: Newport (Rhode Island) Mercury (1846), 5 September, p. 2
By the early years of the twentieth century “cobweb hose” was being advertised in the American and other newspapers. The sheer stockings were associated with the Paris fashions, as Joyce intimates. His advertising phrase “as worn in Paris” is lifted from the papers of the day:
D. Kellett has returned from London with a great selection of the New Modes for Summer. These include the now very fashionable Kimonas and Visites as worn in Paris and leading centres of Fashion.
Irish Times (1908), 15 May p. 3
Gold thread stocking… Stockings made entirely of gold tissue, as worn in Paris, would cost about £2 10s.
Daily Mirror (1912), 15 August p. 5
We might expect the French fashion papers to use the regular French term for “cobweb” (toile d'araignée), but Monsieur Bloch, of the New York firm of S. E. Bloch and Brother, importers, tells the trade paper New Yorker Handels-Zeitung otherwise:
[N]ous voulons parler du fin tissu ressemblant à une toile d'araignée, et qu'on désigne en France sous le nom de «craquelé»1 et en Amérique sous celui de «cobweb».
Cited in: Moniteur des Soies (1898), 26 March p. 5
In the days before nylon, everyday stockings (as opposed to silk stockings) were often made of lisle cotton (originally manufactured in Lille, France). The thinnest lisle stockings, as well as silk stockings, were typically referred to by the trade as “cobweb hose”:
Lord & Taylor, Broadway and 20th Street… Women’s Hose. Plain lisle thread. These are the cobweb hose now so much in vogue.
Sun (New York) (1903), 9 August p. 7
Imported Hosiery… 35c. for 50c. hosiery – women’s very sheer plain black cobweb lisle hose.
Sampson Crawford Co Daily-Bulletin (1905), 3 April p. 1
O’Neill-Adams Co… 50c. Imported Cobweb Hosiery, 35c… Finest grade Imported cobweb weight lisle thread for woman.
New York Times (1908), 16 March p. 3
Not everyone approved of these Parisian trends. The film star Mary Pickford thought cobweb hose a step too far:
Cob-Web Hose and Decollette Are Scored by “Little Mary”; She Says Too Many Reforms […] “Cobweb silk hosiery, short dresses, high-heeled shoes and low-necked waists [i.e. blouses] should not be worn on the streets. The shipping district [of San Francisco] in the afternoon is a disgrace.”
Morning Tulsa (Oklahoma) Daily World (1921), 23 March p. 2
Others shared her view:
I will not wear that fancy gown,
For in my heart there is a frown!
I do not like my cobweb hose,
For I am scarcely clad in those.
"The Exile" in New York Times (1927), 12 July p. 24
But the high-street fashion industry did not always listen to film stars, and the latest French fashions – including the sheerest of cobweb stockings - continued to pour into the international markets:
Saks & Company […] Bring Paris to the Feet of New York with 51-Gauge Cobweb Hose at 7.50. The sheerest of them all. France – that country which so perfectly understands the importance of smartly clad ankles – has offered these gossamer affairs which, by special arrangement, Saks & Company were able to procure for the American woman.
New York Times (1923), 15 May p. 5
Fashions never remain the same, and a cooling blast began to strike the cobweb industry in the mid 1920s:
The fashions of cobweb hosiery, or, as in Paris and on the continent, and in a limited sense in America, the absence of any hosiery at all, can only be described as a sketchy likeness to the kind of stockings our mothers and grandmothers used to wear.
Washington Post (1925), 14 June p. S3
Raymonde’s “stick of rhubarb toe” may be Joyce’s descriptive invention. Similar expressions have not yet been uncovered. But his memory of sheer cobweb stockings in Manfield’s fits precisely with the timeline for these products and their associated vocabulary.