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Sleeve Garters – The History and Future of a Classic Men’s Fashion Accessory
Gamblers and card sharps, gunslingers and knights errant, traveling jazz musicians and punk rockers, even office workers had a hand in shaping the long and colorful story of sleeve socks — one of the classiest underrated accessories in the history of men’s fashion. Although often seen today as new anachronisms from a bygone era, arm socks have meant a lot to the men who have worn them throughout the ages — from a practical necessity to the ultimate symbol of honor and loyalty, the sleeve sock may not be as prevalent today. as in past centuries, but it looks better than ever.
Garters in the Middle Ages and Camelot
The sleeve stockings have been making sporadic appearances in fashion since the Middle Ages, during a time when stockings were a common accessory for both men and women — in the era before elastic, both sexes used stockings to hold up their stockings. These garters were often fancy, very decorative, and worn to be exposed, a trend that dominated men’s clothing well into the 18th century.
Britain’s ultra-exclusive Most Noble Order of the Garter was, in fact, a product of that period, having been established by King Edward 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 sock 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 are said to have tied stockings 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 attach pieces of their armor. The garter’s inspiration was also 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 stockings 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 such as basic pants and shirts more affordable for the average person. But mass-produced clothing that could not 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 stockings were a convenient and, for those who could not afford their own tailor, a necessary way of adjusting the length of their sleeves by keeping excess material piled above the elbow near the shoulder.
Sleeve Garters in the 19th Century and the Wild West
Although production techniques improved over time, leading to the range of shirt sizes available today and eliminating the need for arm socks, there were many other practical considerations that helped keep the sleeve sock 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 socks were a way to keep one’s sleeves clean and spotless.
No less practical were the considerations for card players around the Old West and elsewhere, who often wore arm socks because it made it difficult to hide cards up their sleeves. A card player wearing armbands essentially announced that he was both honest and good enough that he didn’t need to cheat. Arm socks are often worn by card dealers at casinos even today for these reasons, although nowadays 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 on television and film, that gunslingers of the Old West wore sleeve socks to help keep their hands free in the event of a gunfight. However, the notorious inaccuracy of pistols and pistols of the period, added to the fact that the American frontier was typically much less violent than its depiction in pop culture, makes this rationale unlikely. However, there is no doubt that the sleeve stocking is now, as it was then, regarded as a dashing accessory for any well-dressed gunman of that era.
There is also a belief that keeping one’s hands free made arm socks popular among guitarists and early jazz musicians. While there is probably some validity to this opinion, sleeve socks were also popular among singers and other non-instrumental playing performers of the time, lending strong evidence to the idea that arm socks 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 advances and huge changes in fashion during the 20th century, made arm stockings a relic of the past, one that is now little more than a piece of costume restricted to a few very nostalgic professions. However, there is evidence that arm socks can make something of a 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 can incorporate old-fashioned accessories like sleeveless socks into their dress — the internet is pretty rife with how-to guides and how-tos that show fans how to sew their own sleeves.
Whether fads like steampunk will restore the sleeve sock to a mainstream place in men’s fashion remains to be seen, but the movement is proof that the distinct look of this truly old school accessory is still popular with some, and is far from over. Whether for chivalrous brotherhood, practical need or retro fashion, it seems that the sleeve garter will still be seen on men’s arms for at least a little while longer.
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