Peggy Keener: Ode to the unlovable garter belt

Published 5:11 pm Friday, November 3, 2023

Who in a million bejillion years would have ever guessed that a pregnancy would be the inspiration for the invention of the pantyhose? But, it’s true. Ethel Boone Gant was the one who complained so vociferously to her husband, Allen, that he did something about it.

The story starts like this. In 1953, the couple traveled to New York City to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The trip took an obvious toll on Ethel. She was miserable the whole time. Indeed, so miserable that she declared that it was the last time …. the very last time! …. that she would be taking any further trips with him. At least for the time being.

You see, Ethyl was pregnant. Her belly was getting larger and larger. And managing her nylon stockings and the garter belt over her growing hump was just too difficult and uncomfortable to tolerate any longer. She had reached her breaking point.

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In the 50s, women were expected to wear hosiery whenever they went out in public. The problem was that there was only one way to hold them up. The garter belt. Surely the contraption had been designed by a disgruntled parachute inventor; a man who hated women. It was a confusion of elastic straps that would have flummoxed even the most talented of large spiders. But what was Ethyl to do? No way could her bare leg skin be visible to the masses. She either had to stay home or be extremely uncomfortable. Now her pregnancy was making things increasingly worse, veritably unbearable.

All of us 50s girls can sympathize with her plight. We’ve all been there, pregnant or not. And trust me when I say that discomfort was not the only issue, the garter belts were also ugly. Double ugly.

Now, let’s not confuse this 50s monstrosity with the other garter belt—the one that didn’t start at the waist, but rather on the leg and looked like a fat rubber band. All the women (and men) wore them in the 18th century. Elaborately decorated with embroidery, they included names, dates, mottoes and humorous phrases. (Yes, it does beg the question of why?)

Prior to the invention of stretchy elastic, stockings were fastened by buckles or threaded with spiral springs that gripped the wearer’s legs. Whoa, that must have been comfy!

As I mentioned before, there was another cheaper but much less attractive version of this early garter: the plain band of elastic that worked like a tourniquet on the leg. Interestingly, in a pinch these have also been cleverly used as an emergency replacement for a car’s fan belt. Possibly the most famous use was “invented” by Bertha Benz in 1888. Seems that her husband, Dr. Carl Benz, was driving his Benz Patent-Motorwagen Nr. 3 in the world’s first long distance automobile race when it broke down. Thinking fast, Bertha whipped off a garter and Carl used it to insulate one of the engine’s broken wires. There is no report about who won the race, but I’m thinking Bertha should have!

During the 1960s and 1970s, it was common in some American high schools for garters to be an important part of their proms. The garter was often color coordinated with the girl’s formal and was worn just above her right knee. As the evening drew to a close, the girl presented her garter to her date as a token reminder of their glorious time together. He, then, in a bold studly gesture for all to see, hung it from the mirror in his car.

And of course, the bride. What wedding reception was complete without the removal of the garter from the bride’s exposed leg? Slowly lifting up the skirt of her long flowing bridal gown thus revealing her shapely leg, the groom carefully pulls down the lacy garter and flings it into the crowd, particularly in the direction of the bachelors. It adds a kinky though innocent touch to the marriage ritual. (Girls with piano legs, avoid this practice.)

The real problem with some of the garter belts was that the garters fell loosely from the waist. This caused a feeling of vulnerability in the wearer. Would these free flowing straps really hold up her stockings? This serious problem was solved once and for all by the … the … the … girdle! A mighty fortress of a thing, it actually held up the stockings while literally reshaping the wearer. Personally, I loved my Warners girdle. It encased me from my rib cage to below my hips like a Hannibal Lecter bustier.

In my biography, “Potato In a Rice Bowl,” I recall my first trip to Japan. It was 1962 and our plane was a propeller plane that had to stop twice in our traversing of the Pacific Ocean to gas up. Like a proper woman, I wore a girdle. Did I forget to mention that the flight took 24 hours and that the seats on the plane were similar to hammocks? Our bodies were close to folding in half, constricting the even flow of air throughout our intestines.

I exited the plane in Tokyo feeling—and looking—like the Michelin Lady.

I never repeated that absurdity.

There was a real fear that a girdle would make us abdominally flabby because it did all the work for us as we no longer had to hold in our own tummies. Like a lightning strike, the girdle turned our poochiness into petrified wood. The other drawback was that while wearing a tight skirt (which we all did), the outline of the garter resting upon our thighs created a perfect bulging outline through the skirt fabric. There was no hiding it. And, by the way, for those who haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, the garter was a metal clip into which a rubber disc was inserted through the wide band at the top of the stocking thereby locking the stocking in place. It was as secure as a bungee cord.

But now let’s switch back to our beleaguered friend Ethel. It turns out that husband, Allen, just happened to own the Glen Raven Mills, a textile company. Anxious to have Ethel by his side at all events, pregnant or not, he asked what she thought of somehow attaching a pair of stockings to her panties. Furthermore, he asked her to do it. After completing her prototype, she tried it on and ….. loved it! In her enthusiasm, she immediately encouraged Allen to figure out how he could mass produce this garment. In 1959, it hit department store shelves. The name came later: “Panti-Legs.”

Do not think, albeit, that it was an instant success. It didn’t truly take off until the 1960s with the introduction of the mini skirt. Twiggy really got it off the ground. The new mini skirts were short enough that stockings would show past a woman’s hemline. And because the new pantyhose did that, they began flying off the shelves. About the same time, spandex was invented. That combined with novel sewing techniques brought the price of production down dramatically, as well as offering them in a larger range of sizes.

In 1970, L’eggs pantyhose—in their small egg-shaped containers— debuted. They were a smashing success. Well into the 80s, pantyhose became a wardrobe staple. They even came in new colors, textures and sizes. Then in the 1990s as the work culture became more informal, the popularity of pantyhose began to decline. In its place were tights and women’s trouser socks. In recent years, however, pantyhose sales have held. In 2008 alone, there were over 1.4 billions pairs sold.

Everyone has a pair in their drawer, I know it. But do we still wear them? I heard once that Dale and Roy took her old pantyhose and stuffed Trigger with them! Practical use, I’m thinking.