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Garters at the National Trust for Scotland

Written by Vikki Duncan, Curator North
A pair of pink nylon elasticated, frilled garters, with a blue embroidery in the centre. They are displayed against a plain grey background.
Vikki Duncan, Curator for our North region, takes a look at the history of garters.

Valentine’s Day is considered to be one of the most romantic days of the year. Looking through our collections to identify any ‘romantic objects’ is quite a challenge! However, both the Tenement House and Culloden Visitor Centre are fortunate to have very different examples of these wonderfully intimate items, and so I thought I’d take a look at how they’ve been worn and portrayed through the ages.

Today, receiving a set of garters for Valentine’s Day is a fairly intimate symbol of love. However, in centuries past they had a variety of uses, and were commonly worn by both men and women.

In Elizabethan fashion, men wore garters with their hose; colourful garters were an object of proud display. Who can forget the character of Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night? He was encouraged to adopt yellow stockings ‘cross-gartered’ (a long garter tied above and below the knee and crossed between; considered old-fashioned by this time), in the mistaken belief that these would make him more attractive to Olivia.

By the mid-18th century, garters were typically worn below the knee to hold up silk stockings. They had taken on a decidedly more titillating role by this time, as seen in the 1742 painting by Francois Boucher, The Lady’s Toilette. This painting shows a lady revealing her calves as she ties her garters above her knee. Although not revealing her thighs (where the garter was worn in later years), the painting was designed to appeal to those with a taste for mild erotica.

A painting of two wealthy women dressing in a rather cluttered, but grand, room. One lady sits on a chair and rolls a stocking up her leg, raising her thick blue silk skirts to do so. Another lady stands in front of her, wearing a loose, long silk jacket. A painted room screen stands just behind them.
The Lady’s Toilette, Francois Boucher, 1742 | Reproduction rights granted by Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza

It was from this period that our garters at Culloden originate. Garters in the 18th century could be elaborately decorated and were sometimes embroidered with names, dates, mottos or humorous phrases. Secret codes could be shared with sympathisers, perhaps in the form of a gift of garters.

Those on display at Culloden have certainly been woven with a motto of intent: ‘Come let us with one heart unite to bless the Prince for whom we’ll fight’. The silk garters are uncut, meaning they have come straight off the loom and are therefore unworn. The intention was to signal to a lover the wearer’s sympathies; these were more than a mere titillating gift.

In the early 20th century in the USA, the garter took on an extremely practical role. During the Prohibition Era (1920–33), which saw a nationwide ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages, a garter worn by a lady could help conceal all manner of contraband! Indeed for much of the 20th century, a type of garter for holding up socks or stockings was a fairly typical feature, but is less common now, perhaps due to the widespread use of elastic in hosiery. The pink nylon, elasticated, frilled garters from the Tenement House were popular in the 1960s.

And of course today, a traditional Western wedding custom dictates that the bride wears a single garter high up on her thigh. It’s not designed to hold up her stockings or to hold contraband bottles (!), but instead is worn as a symbol of several wedding superstitions, including the removal of a piece of the bride’s clothing to bring good luck.

With the pair of garters from Culloden, we can only hope that the sentiment expressed on the material was met with approval, or else the romance was doomed from the start ...

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