This is an image of the actor Stephen Fry playing Malvolio in the Globe Theatre’s 2012 production of Twelfth Night. At this point in the play, he has changed his costume to include yellow stockings held up by black strips of fabric: ‘cross-gartering’, as it is referred to in the play.

Annoyed by his social pretensions and Puritan attitude, other members of the cast have fooled Malvolio into believing that his employer and social superior Olivia has fallen in love with him. In Act 2, he discovers a letter forged by Maria which argues that ‘In my stars I am above thee, but be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon ’em’ (2.5.143–45). If he wishes not to remain ‘a steward still, the fellow of servant’s not worthy to touch Fortune’s fingers’ (2.5.156–57), he should show his resolve by wearing yellow stockings and cross-garter them. This, the letter claims, is something Olivia finds particularly attractive.

Stockings, gartering and fashion

Though stockings themselves would not have been unusual at the time, we can assume from the amusement they cause that this colour and method of fastening would have seemed ridiculous. Probably, this style was out of fashion.

When Malvolio adopts it, he is described as ‘like a pedant that keeps a school i’ th’ church’ (3.2.75–77), which implies he is provincial and out-of-date.

Olivia’s fool Feste is in on the plot. Perhaps, then, it is a revenge for Malvolio telling Olivia earlier in the play that he is surprised she ‘takes delight in such a barren rascal’:

I protest I take these wise men that crow so at these set kind of fools no better than the fools’ zanies. (1.5.83–84)

A ‘zany’ is a fool’s s assistant in the Italian commedia dell’arte. The implication here is that Feste’s line of work – court fooling – is out of fashion.

Such fashion as yellow, cross-gartered stockings would certainly have been out of keeping with the bearing of a character Olivia describes as ‘sad and civil’ (3.4.5). Onstage before his transformation, Malvolio is often dressed in the sober head-to-toe black of a Puritan. In this alone, the costume change provides the audience with visual proof of how well he has been fooled.