Antiquity of the Garter - Garters of the Past - The Modern Garter

The origin of the garter, which is at once an article of attire and of adornment, is shrouded in mystery. It is probable that it had its genesis at the same time that stockings were introduced. It is possible that it was of even earlier origin, for instances of primitive races - guiltless of hose - have been found where "decorative bands of grass, skins, threads of fibre simple or adorned by feathers, shells, beads, or other ornaments," have been worn on one or both legs above or below the knees.

It is generally supposed, however, by historians of dress and fashion, that both garters and stockings had their origin in Spain, and were introduced into England at a very early period. There are frequent mentions of them by Shakespeare and earlier poets and dramatists, and at these particular periods the garter formed an important article of men's as well as of women's attire.

The most historic and famous of garters. The jewelled garter which forms the chief item of the insignia of the most noble order of European chivalry

The most historic and famous of garters. The jewelled garter which forms the chief item of the insignia of the most noble order of European chivalry

The most historic and famous of garters is undoubtedly that of the Countess of Salisbury - the picking up of which by Edward III. at a ball in the middle of the fourteenth century led to the foundation of the "Most Noble Order of the Garter," with the motto "Honi soit qui mal y pense," the words having, so tradition states, been uttered by the King to rebuke the titters of the courtiers at the Countess of Salisbury's embarrassment.

Describing the incident, a poet wrote:

When Salisbury's famed Countess was dancing with glee, Her stocking's security fell from her knee. Allusions and hints, sneers and whispers, went round; The trifle was scouted and left on the ground: When Edward the Brave, with true soldier-like spirit, Cried: "The garter is mine; 'tis the order of merit.

The first knight in my Court shall be happy to wear, Proud distinction! The garter that fell from the fair; While in letters of gold - 'tis your monarch's high will - Shall be inscribed 'ill to him that thinks ill.' "

Ben Jonson, the Poet Laureate of his day, and a contemporary of Shakespeare, in one of his plays wrote of a character:

"This comes of wearing

Your fine gartering, with blown roses."

From being comparatively simple and uncostly articles of attire, designed originally merely to serve a useful purpose, extravagance was ultimately introduced in them both as regards the material used and the adornment of these articles. John Taylor, the Water Poet, wrote of the extravagance of the taste of his own time thus:

"Wear a farm in shoestrings edged with gold, And spangled gartering, with blown roses."

And yet another writer of the Restoration period speaks of Court ladies as "fair, frail beauties who lift their petticoats to show the gallants the fortunes hung around their legs as garters." This love of display was evidently, however, not confined to the ladies of the Restoration, for a sarcastic poet of the middle of the eighteenth century wrote:

"Make your petticoats short,

That a hoop eight yards wide May decently show

How your garters are ty'd."

The garters worn by men in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries often took the form of richly embroidered scarves, fringed with point lace or gold, and tied in a bow at the side of the knees. At a later period they were often adorned with diamond, paste, or steel buckles, and were broad or narrow according to fashion.

As is perhaps only natural, the possibilities of the garter as an article of adornment, and one upon which extravagance could be lavished, soon attracted the attention of French "fashion makers." Of this phase a modern French writer says: "Upon the garter the brain of woman and of artists concentrated to make it an article not only useful but original, graceful, and poetic. Soon it was turned into an adornment adorable and often costly, hidden from profane eyes, but rejoiced in by the soul of woman." Its varieties, the same writer goes on to declare, were innumerable - "as many as that of the begonia." At this period there were fashions in garters which gave to the princess bows of fine silk ribbon adorned with gold and fine lace and even gems; those for duchesses were of velvet tied in enormous bows whilst the marquise had hers made of muslin or silk of different colours, and more simply adorned. Jewellers devoted their energies and artistic instincts to the production of beautiful buckles, clasps, and decorations for garters. These were attached to strips of ribbon or lace, and the fastenings were often in the form of crowns, dragons, mermaids, and other allegorical figures. Filigree gold and silver garters were greatly esteemed in the eighteenth century, whilst women of simpler taste wore them made of ribbon and finest lace. Gold, silver, enamel, gems, were all used in the adornment of these articles of feminine wear; and a famous jeweller, Meurice, designed a superb pair as a gage d'amour for an illustrious tragedy queen of the period in which he lived. At the commencement of the nineteenth century, and even before, mottoes and inscriptions were often placed on garters, and great ingenuity was used in the selection and evolution of suitable and appropriate words and sentences for this purpose. Often these mottoes were accompanied by emblematic designs. A Duchess of Orleans, when widowed, had her garters of satin adorned by strips of black enamel on which were representations of tears in silver, and the words "Je pleure toujours" engraved. She married shortly afterwards, mistress, was also a victim of the guillotine and had others designed, on the ribbon portion of which was worked the following motto: "L'amour est tout."