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Chenille Embroidered Satin Garters
Chenille Embroidered Satin Garters (detail)

French, ca. 1800

Represented in numerous paintings and prints in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a woman’s garter was a highly erotic and symbolic object. Scenes of gallantry and debauchery by artists such as Jean-François de Troy and William Hogarth depict this functional yet intimately feminine accessory; its overt connotations of sexuality were sometimes emphasized by woven or embroidered amorous inscriptions. Concealed under full-length gowns and petticoats, garters secured the stockings just above or below the knee. In the latter part of the eighteenth century, short garters incorporating fine metal springs and buckles replaced long ribbons or bands that tied around the leg.

Garters were often romantic gifts from a lover during courtship or a husband-to-be at the time of betrothal. In 1802, the Journal des Dames et des Modes, the leading French fashion periodical, included a humorous “catalogue of objects” returned to a young man by his mistress as a result of a quarrel between the two. In addition to three hundred letters and his portrait, the young woman included a pair of garters—one red, symbolizing his passion and one white, symbolizing the purity of her heart.

The refinement of these garters suggests that they may have been intended as an admirer’s offering. Of utmost delicacy, the embroidery here underscores the gender associations of these accessories. On a lightly padded ivory satin ground, a trailing vine with diminutive, stylized buds is worked in gradated pink-to-burgundy and light-to-dark green chenille threads, accented with tiny false pearls; along the sides, ivory chenille threads form a shallow, scalloped edging. This type of chenille needlework on garters, particularly fashionable around the turn of the nineteenth century, was in keeping with the restrained ornament of neoclassical dress.

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