Before the advent of such conveniences as pantyhose (the 1960s) and rubber elastic (the 1820s), how did folks hold their hose up? For after all, hose were originally more like what we now call “stockings” or “knee-highs”, two individual legs with little natural ability to hold themselves up.
As some humans migrated to colder parts of Europe, woven (and eventually knitted) hose became necessary ways of keeping one’s legs warm under the long tunics of the medieval period and early trousers. Garters, wrapped around the knee above or below kept hose from sagging down around the ankles. Unless of course, you were a drunk. You can always recognize a lush by the drooping hose – perhaps the prostitutes stole them (see painting title).
As men’s fashion got shorter, garters became decorative as well as practical, a mean’s of reflecting the wearer’s wealth. Men’s upper body garment’s eventually became so short they were hip length. Hose rose in height and was attached with laces, called points, to the hem of the doublet to keep them up. Garters were still worn but were truly a fashion accessory instead of a necessity. There is only one woman in the painting below and she is not among those wearing the fabulous garters and heels.
Women did wear garters, but as a woman’s knee was not usually seen by the public eye, its beauty was generally only for herself, her husband and perhaps to instill a bit of envy in her closest female companions.
Garters remained in use even into the 20th century, although we see them transition to using elastic instead of just ties or buckles in the 19th century. The pairs I have made for this tutorial are intended for 18th century wear (but you could stretch them into the 19th c. and depending on your fabric choice perhaps go earlier in time as well), with mock embroidery on the band and ribbon ties. They are not 100% historically accurate, as I will explain below, but could easily be made more accurate with a few alterations.
Note: I discovered that the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has many garters in their online database that can be used for inspiration. The blog 18th Century Notebook also has a comprehensive list of links visual inspiration for garters of this time period.
- Decorative fabric or ribbon for the fashion fabric. I used fabric woven to give the appearance of embroidered stripes. I needed around 20″ length, but this will depend on the size of your leg. For reference, I have fairly thin legs – mine were about 9 1/2″ long in the end. If you are into embroidery, you could embroider your own lengths of fabric for a more historically accurate touch, however, using scraps from a gown to match would also be lovely!
- Plain weave fabric for the backing. I used cotton but linen would be more accurate for this time period. Don’t use a slippery fabric like satin as it won’t give any grip, which would defeat the purpose of the garter.
- Ribbon or tape (woven or knitted – I have seen knitted reproduction ones which offer a bit of elasticity and therefore more comfort). I used about 100″ of ribbon but I think this was quite too long.
- Thread. Linen or silk are historically accurate and can be purchased from Wm. Booth, Draper and Burnley & Trowbridge.
- Needle, thimble and iron.
Make a template (if making the shaped garters) and cut 2 bands from the fashion fabric and two from the backing fabric. For the length I measured the circumference of under my knee and subtracted one inch. The width was between 1 and 1 3/4″, but was partly determined by my fabrics. I added 1/8″ seam allowance around all sides.
Sew the fashion fabric and backing fabric together, right sides facing each other. Clip curves (for the shaped one) and turn (a tube turner will help immensely if you have one).
Press. Turn in the open ends 1/8″ and press.
Cut your ribbon into 4 equal lengths. I used 25″ length for each, but they can always be trimmed after making. Insert one end of a ribbon in one of the openings and stitch shut (I used a slip stitch). If ribbon is wider than the opening it may be pleated or gathered to fit. Trim ribbon ends on an angle to prevent fraying
Wear and enjoy!