Stockings and Suspenders

A German stocking dispenser. Who knew that such things existed.

Suspenders  (or garters)

Terminology differs depending on which side of the Atlantic you live. The British use suspenders, the Americans, garters. 



Over a period of eight decades, the stocking, barely rising above the knee at the turn of the century, would steadily rise towards the top of of the thigh until the advent of tights (panty-hose) in the late 1960's.


If one ever doubted that the main function of the girdle is to hold up the stockings (figure shaping was a secondary effect), consider the position of the suspenders in the advertisements above. Whether, corset, girdle or panty-girdle, the suspender sits at an altitude determined by the fashion of the day.



As can be seen from these advertisements from the mid-1960's, the stocking was on the way out and tights (or panty-hose) were becoming fashionable. In case you could not decide, many manufacturers (Spiegel, Jantzen, Gossard, Playtex and Warners in these cases) offered panty-girdles alongside an equivalent girdle.


How many suspenders?

The following comment is interesting since it was clearly aimed at teenagers in the 1960's.

Candy Jones, “Just for Teens”, 1967
“How many garters should a girdle have? To create the sleekest lines at the thighs and to keep the garment in its right position during long spells of sitting, it needs a total of six.”. So now you know.

I’ve tried an eight suspender corset but it was just too complex to hook up the stockings; six is hard enough, particularly the back ones. For elderly ladies, this is a real problem. An elderly acquaintance solved the problem by ordering her corsets with four suspenders; two at the front and one at each side. Another lady, who needs to wear rather sturdy support stockings, said that four suspenders would be too risky and kept to six. She said that she attached the back suspenders before hooking up the corset, then with the corset loosely fastened she would do the front and sides and finally tighten the laces. I use a similar technique although being younger, I’m still flexible enough to adjust the clips with the corset tightened. The lady in her 70’s wears such a long corset (it’s a full 5 inches above the waist she said) and very heavily boned that bending over after the laces are tightened is not an option. She also commented upon her corsetiere's advice that the Trendelenburg Position was optimal for lacing her corsets, that if she laced her corsets lying flat on her back, she would never retain the vertical position.

The number of suspenders is discussed further below in the section on support stockings. Another example of eight suspenders designed to accommodate two pairs of stockings is demonstrated in corset detectives.


Suspender Flashes

Many girdles have satin flashes that cover the suspenders. What purpose do they serve?
I believe they were put there for several reasons:-

- They look very classy and hide the functional suspender.
- They cost money and were optional extrras on custom made garments, thus persuading the woman that in some way they enhanced the garment', which they did. 

- The sales pitch could suggest that they hid the suspender bumps*, which they didn't.

- Sometimes, the flashes were mounted on the inside of the suspender to protect the sensitive skin from the metal.

- They also allowed the corsetiere another route by which to extract that little extra commission.

But lastly, being made of satin, they did what satin does well, and that is to allow the over-riding skirt lining to glide across the suspenders rather than snag against them. 


Various manufacturers tried their own solutions and I have shown some examples below from the Ivy Leaf collection.

On the left, this French girdle has the ribbon attached to the bottom edge of the girdle passing inside the suspender and then feeding through the top of the metal frame to cover the outside. In the middle, another French company simply loops the flash through the top of the suspender frame, thus covering both the back and the front. In the American Spirella on the right, a simple and practical solution, that was used by Spencer until recently, was to cut the suspender elastic a couple of inches longer, so that it hung down the back of the frame to protect the wearer's legs. This is well demonstrated by the girdle on the right. Why, oh why, did Marks & Spencer produce their brilliant girdles, but with unprotected back suspenders exactly where one would sit on them?


*The famous 'suspender bump' was never entirely hidden when wearing close-fitting  or sheer garments. No manufacturer expected the impossible and the Gossard corsetiere's guide simply talks about minimising the problem by use of the satin flashes, and careful positioning of the suspenders themselves.


The flashes on the French corsets above put a finishing touch to the garment which speaks volumes for an age of elegance that is all but forgotten.

Whilst we are talking about suspenders, the following arrangement came to my attention. The 'Camp' style 'swing suspender is well known. It allows free fore and aft movement of the side suspender whilst the wearer is walking. However, the 'glide' suspender (upper right), which appeared briefly of several Gossard girdles is a novel way of achieving the same ends. It didn't last, which suggests that Gossard's engineers may have under-estimated the forces imposed on the 'glide' string when the wearer attempted to sit. It's bad enough having one's stocking snap out of its suspender, however, the brief snap and the slightly baggy stocking are the only give-aways. To have a pink suspender dangling as well must be truly mortifying!


The forces on the suspender can be huge. I've mentioned elsewhere that for decades one of the primary functions of the corset was to support the stockings. In the days of far heavier yarns and elastics, required to support those 'aching legs', the act of sitting down could literally tear the rear suspender from its mounting. 


Whilst we deal with the strength of strings and cords, regard the Spanish corset on the bottom left. A cheap and innovative way to attach the suspender button is shown. One suspects that this must be one of those failed evolutionary paths since the idea never caught on. If 'suspender bulge' was a problem, then this device was not designed to alleviate it! The corset to which it was attached was exquisitely constructed, so the intention was certainly not cost-saving




Bottom right we see an unusual (and presumably less than successful) attempt to attach stockings with no 'suspender bump' at all.


Detachable Suspenders

Many corsets were (and are) fitted with detachable suspenders. This is simply to avoid the uncontrolled discomfort of the suspender when not wearing stockings. For this reason, such corsets were often made of lighter materials since they were designed for warmer climes where stockings might be intolerably hot (never mind the corset!) One of my own corsets has Spirella's solution to this problem (detail right) where a simple lateral hook attaches the suspender to the base of the corset. The French example (very typically of French corsets) has buttons neatly sewn inside the bottom hem of the garment. The thickness of the girdle in this case conceals the buttons, but I'm sure the wearer would have been aware of their presence. Nevertheless, many French garments were made like this.



One of my own trusty Spirella 305's (actually a Spencer posture corset made after the Spirella take-over, but it's every inch a 305, purchased in 1998 and still going strong - left). A beautiful French girdle (right). The blue colour and the buttoned suspenders are classic French.


The Errant Suspender

The embarrassment of having one’s stocking detach from the suspender was always a risk whilst women wore stockings. Not that the detachment was particularly audible, or even noticeable, since the stocking would usually have one of two other suspenders to retain it. It was more the idea that, something untoward had occurred to one’s underwear. My husband remembers well that the only outward sign of his (very prim and proper) mother’s rear suspender coming drift was a muttered “Oh, Blast” (very strong language for such a lady).  She would then depart to rectify the situation.

A stocking properly attached to the suspender will not come adrift, so why did this happen so frequently? I believe it was very much a problem of the 1960’s rather than any other period. One must consider the fashion of the times. Stockings were worn by all women throughout the year, however, as skirts became shorter, so the stockings became longer. Attaching one’s back suspenders became harder and harder (a long rear suspender is far easier to attach that a small tab right up by one’s derriere). Some brands of girdle were even manufactured without rear suspenders. At this time, the suspender design was becoming more stream-lined. Cars started having heaters, central heating in the house was becoming common, and basically, a warmer population demanded sheerer fabrics. The suspender was designed to minimise its profile. As can be seen below, the old button-centred suspender was replaced by the classic ‘so-lo’ suspender as adopted by Marks and Spencer. These suspenders, especially the invisible rear ones, were all too easy to cross-thread. The tension of the stocking would allow for temporary security until the wearer sat down and stood up again. Then ‘ping’; detachment and embarrassment.


               The dreaded cross-thread!

Even worse was the lady who finding no stockings short enough for the unfashionable length of her corsets, would try to double over the welt of the stocking. If this thickness of material could even be accommodated, the result was usually a delayed failure.

One might have thought that the worst embarrassment was to have one's suspenders clearly outlined against taut material, however, consider the times. Nobody these days remarks on a lady's brassiere clearly seen beneath a blouse. So in the 1960's, the visible suspender bump was probably a cause of neither interest nor embarrassment (left). However, to have your suspender revealed by your skirt riding up would definitely cause concern although the young mother appears quite unconscious of the fact (right).



Spirella had this to say about suspenders.


Support Stockings


Oh Dear. How blunt was the advertising in the 60's! The elderly were made to feel just that.


I've mentioned in several places that one of the primary functions of the corset is to hold up the stockings. This might not seem correct from today's point-of-view, but it must be realised that three or four decades ago, millions of women, whose daily chores were far more onerous than today, suffered badly from varicose veins (right). Mainly these went untreated surgically, and the sufferer was sentenced to wear what effectively varied from support stockings to surgical stockings. They were fairly obvious to the casual observer being rather shiny, and, in full surgical weight with latex rather than lycra yarn, with a distinct odour. 


The bane of the elderly and the working woman

In the 1950's, it was not that unusual (for these garments were readily available from mainstream mail order houses), to find a middle-aged woman wearing a rubber corset, or worse, a rubber corselette, complete with latex yarned stockings. An elderly gentleman of my acquaintance, commented on his wife who wore such a combination of garments; "You know, the old girl used to pong a bit in the hot weather!"

A famous actress who suffered badly with her legs went to the extent of wearing thick flesh-coloured, latex stockings. They were apparently exceedingly uncomfortable, but since she wore dentures, a wig and over-tight corsets, it was simply another discomfort amongst many. "One must suffer to be beautiful" and this poor lady certainly did!

The strength and weight of these support stockings outranks that of some of today's so-called 'shapewear'. As with girdles and corsets, detailed instructions as to how to put on the garment were quite critical. A firm corset or girdle was absolutely necessary to counter the ferocious pull of these stockings. Six non-elastic suspenders was deemed critical to accept the tension. 

It may well be, that as varicose veins became an affliction of the past, so the necessity for the corset and girdle to act as an immoveable anchor also waned. 

In order to disguise the surgical stockings, let alone the varicose veins, many women resorted to wearing a pair of fashionable stockings over the supporting ones. This lead to girdles and corsets with at least eight suspenders!


I do know of one lady who ordered her corsets with an amazing 12 suspenders; six non-elastic and six elastic. The former held up her surgical stockings, the appearance of which she detested. The latter supported a pair of fashionable stockings worn over the top as a disguise. This lady accepted the daily chore of affixing 12 suspenders as the cost of her vanity. For those modern women that consider this to be far fetched, I refer them to the packet of Duribilknit support stockings from 1960. "Fashioned to be worn with or without regular stockings".


Today the forces and tensions of a woman's foundations four decades ago are almost unknown and to many youngsters, virtually unbelievable.





The reference above to surgical stockings is repeated several times in correspondence from Spirella corsetieres. It was a clever ploy by the corsetiere to gain just a little more commission. 



What could be easier, having fitted the wedding guest with new brassiere and girdle for the occasion, to persuade her that some support for her legs was required. "There will be so much standing around. You really have to consider your poor legs". This ploy was so successful that Spirella branded their own support stockings (above).

In reality, the use of these stockings post-War, once nylon had become readily available, was a boon to the millions of women who suffered from varicose veins. Before the removal of such veins became commonplace, many women simply had to wear support stockings. It raises, once again, one of the fundamental reasons for wearing a corset or girdle, and that is to hold up one's stockings. So many ladies, elegant in all other respects, were sufferers, and the tan shininess of their powerful surgical stockings was a common sight. A firm foundation was required to provide an anchor for the vertical strain on these stockings. By today's standards, there are some articles called 'shapewear' whose confining properties are not in the same league as the stockings of the 1960's. It raised a genuine concern by an inexperienced aeroplane passenger. This elderly lady, confined as she was by her stockings, brassieres and girdle was concerned about what would happen to the only unconfined part of her anatomy, her head, in the pressurised cabin of the plane!

The advertisement from Dorothy Perkins on the right illustrates one of the fundamental uses for a girdle that is to hold up the stockings. Oddly enough for every woman who delighted in a suspender free existence, there was a man who bemoaned their passing!

Perhaps the final word on suspenders should come from the elderly widow who was asked if she missed her late husband, "Oh yes, I really do" she replied. "I've nobody to do up my back suspenders any more!"

Thoughts on Suspenders


Where did the garters go?

I have always found this advertisement somewhat odd (right). Certainly the wind lifting the skirt has been used many times by the foundation garment marketers (Marilyn Monroe even indulged - left) but where are the Sarong lady's garters? (I have used the word garter since this is an American advertisement. In Britain we would say suspenders and in France, jaratelles that sounds altogether more feminine!)

I have just noticed your comment: "Was there a period when the US censors regarded suspenders as provocative?"  I can't answer that but would make two points:

1.  My wife (back in the 1960s) always insisted that a girdle couldn't be worn without being anchored by stockings and that it would quickly end up bunched around her waist if she did so. She also said, when trying on a new girdle, that it was only when the suspenders were fastened that she could tell whether the girdle was satisfactory.  I assume she meant that the extra tension the suspenders provided was necessary to make the girdle function.

2.  When looking, with my wife, at advertisements (or catalogue pictures) for girdles, the suspenders were there but they were almost never shown with stockings attached.  I naively asked whether that suggested that the garment could be worn without stockings.  As well as definitely refuting such an idea she also said she thought that women would look at the fastened suspenders pulling on the stockings and be reminded of what the girdle would feel like when the suspenders were done up.  As mentioned in (1) above, she felt the full power of the girdle only when the suspenders were fastened.  I remember her also saying that it would be lovely not to have to wear the stockings but the girdle just wouldn't work properly without them. No wonder she was very pleased when tights and panty girdles became available!

[What a very interesting observation. Some girdles appear to be designed to be worn without stockings. Many girdles do have detachable suspenders and a hallmark of French girdles is that their suspenders are normally attached to the girdle by buttons. I had thought that this was to remove the suspenders (and therefore stockings) in the warm weather. However, I now believe that this feature was simply for the replacement of worn out suspenders. Ivy]


By chance, just after posting my comments about the significance of suspenders in the functioning of women's girdles, I came across the attached picture of a (obviously American) girdle packaging which actually points out that fastening the suspenders provides the tummy and back control.  I think this is what my wife meant when she said the full effect of the girdle wasn't apparent until suspenders were fastened.

One other odd thing: the girdle in the photo is a panty girdle. My wife complained bitterly that, while she loved not having to deal with suspenders once tights came along, the panty girdles she found at M&S, though labelled firm control, were nothing like as firm as her previous open girdles.  Eventually she obtained panty girdles elsewhere with which she was happier.  In some ways, I think panty girdles never quite matched the ability of open girdles - with suspenders fastened - to provide figure control.

The same correspondent continues:


Some weeks ago you made reference to possible censorship in adverts - because suspenders wereen't depicted.


I've been thinking about this, off and on, and my conclusion is that the advertisers weren't following outside rules, they were depicting what they thought middle America wished to see.


Pin-ups were at the height of popularity, but not the gross ones of the 1970's.  Gil Elvgren was active, 'momism' was on the rise.


Taking your two examples I believe that the advertisers felt - or knew from research - is that prudish Mrs 50's America did NOT wish to appear like the picture when getting dressed (above left) or caught by a breeze at the airport (above right) even though the ladies knew that to be the case.


I think it's the pull on the stocking top, the tautness of the suspender and the slight bulge of the thigh - so carefully depicted in Elvgren's studies - that Mrs America would not wish to be associated with by implication in her purchases. So leave them out; Mrs America knows they'll be there.


My support for this reasoning is that even when they are depicted (right) almost always the stocking tops are depicted unnaturally.  They are faint, not dark. and they and the suspenders are shown unstressed, in fact the suspenders are often shown slack.




Another association I suspect they wished to avoid was the attached one. Significantly it was sent to me as one of many 'nostalgic' images of things like balsa-wood planes and Love Hearts in an e-mail doing the rounds. The point being that it's considered a 'normal' nostalgic image.

It was a habit many women had of donning precious nylons fairly publicly at the last minute. For a man, a leg-show. For a lad in underpants and trousers not privy to the complexities of a lady's underwear at that time, but neveretheless often seeing flashes of schoolgirls' plain knickers, it was a mystery - to what did they fasten them? The younger the lad the more likely it was to be done in front of them. Finding out how it was done led to the astonishing discovery that girdles and corsets of of varying complexity and probable discomfort, as seen in adverts in general publications and in shop windows, were worn UNIVERSALLY, and provided explanations of references made in open conversation (at least in front of minors).

I firmly believe that this one habit contributed strongly to the later fascination with stocking-tops and on up that we still see today.

To depict the garments without suspenders avoided a mental link in the prospect's mind to how her habit of raising her skirt to the height of her suspenders could be titillating to males of all ages.