Read author Kate Kemp-Griffin’s favorite chapter in her book, Paris Undressed : The Secrets of French Lingerie
Excerpt from Chapter Twelve : Garter Belts & Stockings ©Allen & Unwin
It could have been the Canadian winters, or the Lycra crew shorts and racer-back tank top to which I was partial in summer. Whatever the reason, or the season, I seem to have missed the conversation about the importance of garter belts and stockings.
The purpose of those intimate items remained abstract to me, and nonessential to the meaning of life. I was more concerned with my career options and marrying my college sweetheart (who hadn’t voiced an objection to growing old with me in pantyhose).
Then my husband and I moved to France, and everything changed.
We were out at the famed Moulin Rouge with our new French friends, Pierre and Armelle. I watched as the dancers can-canned their way across the stage, all synchronized hips, their legs in hitched-up stockings.
“To the belle époque!” enthused Pierre as he refilled our champagne glasses.
“Amazing,” said my husband, glassy-eyed after the number ended.
I looked from one to the other. “I love the costumes,” I admitted, “but I don’t envy the dancers having to lace up those corsets or struggle with those stockings every night. What a hassle!”
It was then that Armelle dropped the garter guillotine. “Chèrie,” she said, leaning toward me, “any woman who truly loves her man wears stockings.”
After that, I began to notice garter belts and stockings everywhere: soirees, cafés, at the gym, on the street. And, of course, in window displays of the ubiquitous lingerie boutiques throughout Paris. There were a lot of women in love, including moi – and I was going to prove it à la française. I began to take an active interest in what I had formerly dismissed as “hassle-wear.”
A little research revealed that the French word for garter belt, le porte-jarretelles, stemmed from two words: la jarretière, a ribbon or band that was used by both men and women to hold up their socks behind the knee (le jarret); and le porte, a holder. The clips attached to the bottom of the jarretelles, garter straps, hold up the stockings.
While my friends were defending their Ph.D.’s, attending leadership seminars, and learning Photoshop, I signed up for, yes, a garter belt workshop. Cervin, the legendary French hosiery manufacturer, organized an Atelier Porte-Jarretelles. I showed up on a Saturday afternoon at their showroom basement, which had been converted into a speakeasy for the occasion. That’s where I met Julia Palombe – a singer, model, and dancer – who greeted us (un)dressed in a black bustier, retro panty, black garter belt, and blush stockings.
The first order of business was a flute of champagne because, well, this was Paris. Then we moved on to introductions. There were three other participants, all women, none of whom looked as if they needed “Garter Belts & Stockings for Dummies”. Two of them, twins in their mid-twenties, were dressed à la pin-up in identical pencil skirts and stockings. Their only apparent difference was their chosen shade of lipstick: one had on a deep blue-red, the other was in a brighter, tomato-y red. They loved everything retro and the idea of an afternoon at a speakeasy sounded fun.
A photographer was also on hand to capture our magical moments. She was wearing an aqua flounce skirt, the straps of her garter belt visible beneath and attached to a pair of black opaque stockings with grunge-gaping holes.
Meanwhile, I was in jeans and socks.
“A garter belt is more important to me than a bra,” said Julia. “It’s not a fashion accessory. It’s a lifestyle. A beautiful bra makes me feel great, but a garter belt and stockings make me feel sensational. ”To me, sensational meant a day on the ski slopes followed by a deep-tissue massage. “This is the front and this is the back,” she continued, turning the garter belt over, sending the straps flying through the air and clinking like chimes. “Ideally, there should be six straps.”
“Six sounds excessive,” I said, looking up from my note-taking. “Why not four?”
“Six holds everything in place so that your stockings do not fall down,” said Julia. “Don’t worry, they move with your body. You will feel a gentle tug from time to time, just enough to remind you.”
“Remind me of what?”
Julia’s eyes twinkled. “That life is full of unexpected pleasure.”
While the pin-up twins mugged and posed for the photographer, I had Julia all to myself. “Why don’t you try?” she said, handing me the garter belt.
I stepped behind the screen and shimmied out of my jeans. I put the garter belt on back to front, as I do with my bras, and twisted it around.
“Now the stocking,” said Julia. “Sit down on the chair and slip it over your foot. You must secure your foot, or your stocking will not be straight and the seam will zigzag up the back.”
I adjusted my toes and heel so they were aligned in the reinforced foot of the stocking. I had grabbed the top to pull it up when Julia cried out, “Mon dieu!” as if stricken. She put her hand firmly on mine. “It is not a sock,” she cautioned. “Unroll the stocking slowly and coax it up your leg. Use the pads of your fingers, or your nails will catch. Feel the seam in the back to guide you.”
I tried to do what she said. I coaxed, I pleaded, I cursed. Feeling ridiculously campy, I realized that I had more chance of winning the Nobel Prize than having a career as a B-movie seductress. By the time I got the stocking up and the seam centred, beads of perspiration had dripped down onto my forehead.
“Now what?” I said, clinging to the top of the stocking.
“Now you are going to attach the clips, like this,” said Julia, taking hold of one of hers to demonstrate. “To open the clip, hold it like so, between your index finger and thumb. Use your index finger to slide the clip up and out. See?”
Yes, I could see. There was nothing wrong with my sight. My dexterity was another matter. I was practically using my teeth on the clips by the time I had wrangled one open.
“It takes a little practice,” Julia reassured me. “Attach the back strap first. It’s easier. Let the straps sit slightly to the side instead of straight back. Think of a clock. You want the back strap to be at five o’clock on the right thigh and seven o’clock on the left so the clips don’t poke you when you sit down.”
I reached behind me for five o’clock but must have been closer to English Tea Time, because Julia gently moved my hand further back.
“Clip on the welt, the darker band, about an inch from the top,” she said.
Surprising myself, I eventually attached all six clips. “Très bien,” confirmed Julia. “Now adjust the straps to your leg length. Give yourself a bit of slack in order to sit down. It helps to lift your leg onto a chair to adjust.”
I hoisted my leg like Marlene Dietrich, gaining confidence all the while, and then repeated the entire procedure on the other leg.
“Et voilà!” I said proudly.
Julia took in the full picture, frowning at the wingtip oxfords I had kicked aside. “You need heels,” she admonished. “Try mine.”
Standing tall in Julia’s red patent leather pumps, my back slightly arched, I teetered before I found my balance. I looked with surprise and pride at my reflection in the mirror.
Except that I had to pee. Badly. All that champagne.
Julia handed me a silk wrap and directed me toward the rest room. I rushed into the cubicle and realized that I had a problem. I couldn’t pull down my underwear, which was stuck at stocking level and trapped beneath the garter belt, straps, and clips. I had no idea how to disentangle myself, and I was running out of time. I crossed my legs and jiggled to avoid disaster and hurried to unfasten all six clips. Three broken fingernails later and accident averted, my stockings now lay bunched around my ankles. I yanked them (no coaxing this time) back up my leg, attached them as best I could, and bounded back to Julia.
She took one look at the misaligned wreckage of my stockings and clasped my hands. “Wear your panties on top if you’re going to wear a garter belt all day,” she said with a smile. “It will be a lot easier, n’est-ce pas?”
“But all the photos and window displays show the underwear underneath!”
“A preferred marketing aesthetic,” said Julia. “Wearing a garter belt and stockings all day is different. And in the game of seduction, they’re more appealing than panties and should be the last things to go. There is another option, of course.”
“No panties at all.”
Oh dear God. There was still so much to learn.