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Garter Buttons

An unusual garter button with full body red, white and blue ribbon trim. Courtesy: Millicent Safro, Tender Buttons
2nd row #3 is English and has embroidered hair and silkscreen face. 65% of actual size. Courtesy: Judie Treuschel
Life magazine cover of the '20s by illustrator and satirist John Held Jr. This "Hold Em" cover may have been a spoof of the song "Roll 'em Girls, Roll 'em."
120% of actual size Courtesy: Judie Treuschel
Garter buttons were all the rage in the Flapper Era of the 1920s, when American cultural attitudes loosened up following World War I. Strict Victorian morality -- and fashions -- gave way to a freewheeling hedonism as the country enjoyed the economic boom. In 1920, Prohibition halted the legal manufacture and sale of alcohol, but Americans began to violate this new law almost immediately. The automobile provided new freedoms and opportunities, sex and frivolity were promoted in the movies, and pictorial spreads on celebrity lifestyles and fashion trends ran coast to coast.

The change in young women's attitudes was nothing short of revolutionary, as they challenged everything about their parents' generation. Women took up smoking and drinking at speakeasies. Skirt lengths rose and rose some more, revealing silk or lisle (cotton) stockings, or new rayon (acetate) stockings.

According to my great-aunt Edith Shostak, who was a model in New York in the '30s, stockings were rolled to just above the knee and held in place by extra-wide rubber bands. But women who were more affluent and fashionable, including Edith's older sister Stephanie, who modeled in the '20s, bought fancy garters. The garters were similar to today's wedding garters, worn on the outside of the stocking, and sometimes decorated with garter buttons.

Edith assured me that it was "very sexy" to roll the stockings just below the knee, revealing bare skin when dancing in the new flared skirts. Boudoir sets included garters and wands with powder puffs to powder the knees -- and even sleeping headbands to match. Such frivolous items as garter buttons and boudoir sets were mainly available in major cities. Even so, innovative country girls rolled their stockings below their knees and painted faces on their knees.

Garter buttons were nearly always silk, usually painted or printed with Betty Boop, Clara Bow, or other vamp faces of the era. The police officer signaling "Stop!" is a humorous exception. Bright colors and a wide variety of embellishments were used.

Millicent Safro, owner of the New York shop Tender Buttons, believes garter buttons were primarily made in America, often by ribbon companies. About 25 years ago she purchased old stock from a ribbon company that was going out of business, and acquired Betty Boop faces printed on squares of ribbon ready for cutting and wrapping around button forms. She had many buttons made from them and sold them in her New York store in the 1970s. Button collectors should note that they did not have any embellishment on them and are not back marked.

All the fun and roar of the '20s ended abruptly with the stock market crash on October 29, 1929. As stocks fell, so did hemlines and the American spirit, and the country entered the years of the Great Depression.

Excerpt from "Roll 'em Girls, Roll 'em", a popular song of the mid-'20s © 1925 Joe Morris Music Co.
Roll 'em Girls, Roll 'em

Listen girls, listen girls,
I've a word for you.
Just because "you're up to date,"
& do the things you do.
Don't let anyone tell you,
that you don't act nice.
Why, you're as sweet as
Grandma was, so take my advice.
Roll 'em girls, roll 'em.
Go a-head & roll 'em,
Roll 'em down
& show your pretty knees.
Roll 'em girls, roll 'em.
Ev'rybody roll'em.
Roll 'em high or low,
just as you please.
Don't let people tell you
that it's shocking.
Paint your sweetie's picture
on your stockings.
Roll 'em girls, roll 'em.
Go ahead & roll 'em.
Roll 'em down
& please the traffic cop.
Roll 'em girls, roll'em,
ev'rybody roll 'em,
When you cross the street,
the traffic stops!
Even grouchy traffic cops
get jolly
When they see you
stepping to a trolley.
Red lights on, red lights off,
Cops are only human,
Roll 'em girlie, roll 'em,
roll your own.
sweethearts, wives & mothers,
young maids, old maids,
even our Grandmothers…
High or low, rain or snow,
girlies must be stylish.
Roll 'em girlies, roll 'em,
roll your own.
Judy Stopke is a graphic designer and editor of the National Button Bulletin, a subscription periodical for members of the National Button Society. She lives and works in Ann Arbor, Mich. She finds button collecting endlessly fascinating at many levels. You can reach Judy at jstopke@comcast.net.
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