Gamblers and cardsharps, gunslingers and knights-errant, traveling jazz musicians and punk rockers, even office clerks have had a hand in shaping the long and colorful story of sleeve garters — one of the classiest underrated accessories in the history of men’s fashion. Although often regarded today as novel anachronisms from a bygone era, arm garters have meant much to the men who have worn them throughout the ages — from practical necessity to the highest symbol of honor and loyalty, the sleeve garter may not be as prevalent today as in centuries past, but it’s looking better than ever.
Garters in the Middle Ages and Camelot
The sleeve garter has been making sporadic appearances in fashion since the Middle Ages, during a time when leg garters were a common accessory for both men and women — in the era before elastic, both sexes used leg garters to hold up their stockings. These garters were often fanciful, highly decorative, and worn to be displayed, a trend that dominated men’s clothing clear through the 18th century.
Great Britain’s ultra-exclusive Most Noble Order of the Garter, in fact, was a product of this period, having been established by King Edward the III sometime in the mid-14th century as a fellowship of chivalrous knights bound by the symbol of the garter. The organization, still in existence today, is limited to royalty and foreign sovereigns and is regarded as one of the most elite societies in the world.
The reason Edward III chose to use the garter as a symbol of his fraternity is shrouded in legend and has been the subject of a great deal of controversy and debate. Some trace Edward’s inspiration to the Crusades, where knights were said to have tied garters around their legs as talismans that would assure them of victory. Others say the source can be traced to the leather straps that knights of the period wore around their arms to bind pieces of their armor. The inspiration of the garter has also been attached to none other than legendary Camelot, where many members of King Arthur’s Round Table, most notably Sir Gawain, wore garters as a sign of solidarity, loyalty, purity, and brotherhood.
By the end of Elizabethan England, arm and sleeve garters had largely faded from fashion but were destined to make a big comeback during the 19th century. With the Industrial Revolution came the introduction of mass produced textiles, making clothing like basic pants and shirts more affordable to the average person. But mass produced clothing, which couldn’t be pre-fitted to the wearer, tended to come in only standard sizes while most men’s shirts were produced with sleeves in only one length, extra long. Arm garters were a convenient and, for those who couldn’t afford their own tailor, necessary way to adjust the length of one’s sleeves by keeping excess material bunched above the elbow near the shoulder.
Sleeve Garters in the 19th Century and the Wild West
Though production techniques improved over time, leading to the variety of shirt sizes available today and eliminating the need for arm garters, there were numerous other practical considerations that helped keep the sleeve garter popular among certain circles. Among news printers, office clerks, and other professionals who worked near ink (in an era where most documents were still produced by hand), arm garters were a way to keep one’s sleeves clean and smudge-free.
No less practical were the considerations for card players around the Old West and elsewhere, who commonly wore arm garters because it made hiding cards up one’s sleeves difficult. A card player wearing sleeve garters was essentially announcing that he was both honest and good enough that he didn’t need to cheat. Arm garters are often worn by card dealers at casinos even today for these reasons, though presently they are regarded more as a decorative part of a traditional uniform than as a safeguard against cheating.
There is also the notion, popularized by depictions in television and film, that gunslingers of the Old West wore sleeve garters to help keep their hands free in the event of a shootout. However, the notorious inaccuracy of pistols and handguns from the period, added to the fact that the American frontier was typically far less violent than its depiction in pop culture, makes this rationale unlikely. However, there is no question that the sleeve garter is now, as it was then, regarded as a dashing accessory for any well-dressed gunslinger from that era.
There is also a belief that keeping one’s hands free made arm garters popular among guitarists and early jazz musicians. While there is likely some validity to this opinion, sleeve garters were also popular among singers and other non-instrument playing performers of the time, lending strong evidence to the idea that arm garters were as fashionable as they were practical.
Retro Fashion and the Return of the Sleeve Garter
The end of the Old West, combined with technological advancements and huge changes in fashion during the 20th century, has turned arm garters into a relic of the past, one that’s now little more than part of a costume limited to a few highly nostalgic professions. There is, however, evidence that arm garters may be making something of second comeback.
The aesthetic known as steampunk, which combines and blends the energy of punk music, the advances of modern technology, and the look and style of Victorian fashion, has recently begun to influence fictional literature, art, music, film, and especially clothing. Fans of this new and often whimsical style are known to incorporate dated accessories like sleeve garters into their dress — the internet fairly abounds with how-to guides and instructions that show fans how to sew sleeve garters of their own.
Whether fads like steampunk will restore the sleeve garter to a premier place in men’s fashion remains to be seen, but the movement is proof that the particular look of this truly old school accessory is still popular for some, and is far from finished. Whether for chivalrous brotherhood, practical need, or retro fashion, it seems the sleeve garter will still be seen on men’s arms for at least a little while longer.