A garter is a circular piece of fabric or leather that was normally tied near the knee to keep socks or stockings from falling down. Without elasticized clothing before the 20th century, and prior to the invention of nylon, this was merely one way to keep stockings from falling. Initially, garters were tied, and relatively utilitarian. They did not much resemble those worn today by many Western brides, which are worn for decorative and traditional purposes but are not tremendously functional.
The garter worked fairly well for keeping up the stockings, but many women in the early 20th century replaced them with garter belts to be worn with silk stockings. These belts fit around the waist and had four straps, two hanging in front and two in back, that could fasten to the stockings. Normally, they fastened at about mid thigh, thus accommodating the shorter skirts worn by women.
The invention of nylon and pantyhose largely made both the garter and the belt superfluous. It was simply easier to wear stockings that fit up to the waist, and it eliminated an undergarment from daily wear. Today, some people may wear a garter belt, a merry widow, or an all-in-one with garter attachments more as a romantic statement. Styles from the 1990s onward have favored the barelegged style as opposed to nylons in most settings.
This has left the garter with really only one function, as a ceremonial garment worn by brides on their wedding days. Usually, the type worn is a lacy, stretchy affair in colors like white or ivory. Some feature a blue bow so the bride can wear her traditional “something blue” on the wedding day.
Traditionally, the groom removes the garter and tosses it to single men at the wedding ceremony. This can be a modest procedure, but some modern grooms are immodest in how it is removed, perhaps even taking it off with their teeth. In a wedding with a number of guests from different backgrounds and generations, a more modest removal is considered better manners.
Like the wedding bouquet tossed by the bride to unmarried women, the garter is often thought to signify that the male who catches it will be the next one married. The man and women who caught the items often pose together for a picture at traditional weddings.
In the UK, this piece of clothing may better be known as suspenders. This should be differentiated for the use of the word suspenders as to keep the pants in place. If a shopper is searching for garters in England and having no luck finding them, he or she might ask for women’s suspenders instead.