by Dr Benjamin Wild
I've never liked belts. They disrupt the clothed silhouette by gathering and puckering fabric.
They form an unsightly bulge beneath jumpers and look awkward peeking below a waistcoat, along with the tie end, untucked shirt and tummy. The resulting effect is to make the garments that cover a man's torso and legs appear as if they belong to different people, as though two Matryoshka dolls had been erroneously paired.
Belts conspicuously emphasise the poor fit of the garments they are holding up and in many cases, cruelly highlight the corpulence of the person wearing them.
But this is to assume that belts are solely functional. Increasingly, street styled gents appear to be wearing belts for display rather than decorum. In recent weeks, Tumblr's dedicated followers of fashion have featured men whose belts serve a similar function to those worn by WWI soldiers and Batman; that is, as a prop to hang important accessories – a Bell & Ross pocket watch costing £1,800, for example.
But before we rush to proclaim the utility belt’s coming of age, not all of the objects slung from it are practical. In a photograph that I saw last week, a sitting room-styled gent poses with an ochre-coloured tassel suspended from his woven leather belt.
Complementing the colour of his floral shirt, it would seem that the tassel is being worn much like a pocket square, as an object of decoration.
Ilse Fingerlin’s Gürtel des hohen und späten Mittelalters (Belts of the High and Late Middle Ages) is probably unknown, certainly unread, beyond a small circle of German-speaking, dress-loving medievalists.[i] Under appreciated though the book may be, the fact that it was published testifies to the enduring sartorial and sociological appeal of the belt.
Whilst its usefulness varies in direct proportion to the fit of the bifurcated garments to which it is attached, throughout history and across the world the belt has been available in various colours, materials and styles.
It can be easily, and relatively cheaply, customised with studs, embroidery, branding or a different buckle, proclaiming anything from ‘Handle With Care’ to ‘Keep Calm And Party On’ ((slightly) more tasteful expressions are available). The belt’s flexibility delights the pragmatist and the peacock in equal measure. That said, I still don’t like it and for the past three years I have not worn one.
In using the belt to flaunt desirable characteristics and qualities, Modern Man is aping his medieval ancestors, who suspended daggers, purses and gloves from their belts, as much for each of use as to signify power, wealth and physical aptitude.[ii]
The belt was similarly important for women because it emphasised the womb and highlighted their power as child bearer and mother, as Jan Van Eyck’s painting, The Arnolfini Wedding (1434), shows; more especially as the large-bellied bride is not actually pregnant.[iii] But to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park, the mathematician Dr Ian Malcolm, the sartorial and sociological knowledge of how to wear the belt has been acquired, rather than earned, and so any sense of how to wear it appropriately is obfuscated. Hence, perhaps, the frivolous tassel in the photograph.
Today, belts are a convenient, even lazy, way of making ill-fitting trousers stay up. There is no need to be cognisant of the size of one’s body, or to consider the trousers’ drape, because the belt will hold things up regardless; or, as is the preference for certain (young) men, it will suspend said bottoms lower to reveal the waistband and brand of underwear. Essentially, this means that I dislike belts for what they represent, rather than what they are.
In the past, men’s clothes were attached by an interconnecting system of hooks and eyelets. Each garment was fastened to another to form the overall structure of the outfit. At a time when all garments were bespoke and handcrafted, it was imperative for men (and women) to know their body’s size and to appreciate how the various articles of clothing that constituted their garments were put together, whether or not they dressed themselves.
This sartorial know-how died hard.
In the twentieth century, long after doublets and hose had been superseded, Edward Windsor and his tailors devised innovative ways to ensure the ducal wardrobe retained its structure without looking too formal.[iv]
It has been suggested that the Italian industrialist Gianni Agnelli wore custom-made shirts that fastened under the groin, to prevent them from rising up. But die the knowledge did. The duke and magnate were privileged men, but their style was a beneficiary of their wealth, rather than a cause of it. They understood how the clothed silhouette determined sartorial success or failure.
Modern Man, rich or poor, seems content to let multinational companies dictate his size and style.
The belt is not alone in incurring my sartorial censure.
I also dislike clip-on braces. They, too, epitomise how Modern Man’s attitude to the structure of his outfit has slumped.
I like, and wear, braces that attach to trousers by means of internal buttons – two pairs at the front and one pair at the rear – because they support even the most well-fitting of trousers from rising or sagging.
Gravity being what it is, or as Isaac Newton explained it, a garment worn from the waist is always going to hang better if it is suspended from the shoulders, rather than being clamped directly against the skin, regardless of whether it is bespoke or off the peg.
Buttoned braces become an integral part of a garment’s structure, whereas clip-on braces pull and mark the trouser fabric and often cause the waistline to bow. Above all, clip-on braces appear as thought they an after thought. It as though their wearer has realised that his trousers do not fit, or that he wants them to hang more freely, only after wearing them.
The majority of off the peg trousers do not contain brace buttons, but this is changing. Slowly. Hackett now sell a range of braces with interchangeable ends that clip and button to trousers. The braces are sold with six buttons that can be sewn into any pair of trousers and they are not difficult to add.
I have focused on bottoms, but men also muck up their tops.
In the past two weeks, I have seen three different men wearing off the peg jackets with the rear vents sewn together. I am not against off the peg tailoring – let’s be clear about that – but I struggle to grasp how men can buy clothes that don’t fit them.
I suppose the point might be similar to women and their bras. I am really no expert here, but whenever I watch reality-based style programmes, unsuspecting women are always being berated for not knowing their cup size.
To varying degrees, we all suffer from sizing myopia because we are content to accept unquestioned the sizing labels sewn into mass produced garments and believe that our unique physiques will snugly fit them.
This is as much about personal self-esteem issues as it is Theodor Adorno’s belief that our faculties for critical thought have been weakened, if not obliterated, by contemporary consumer culture. The result is a ubiquity of similarly styled and poorly fitting garments that require belts and braces to hold them together.
Given time, I hope the renewed interest in historic garments and vogues will engender an appreciation of how clothes should be worn. But if not, perhaps the belt tassel will become a trend and distract people from noticing Man’s sartorial sluggishness?
[i] I. Fingerlin, Gürtel des hohen und späten Mittelalters (Munich, 1971).
[ii] B.L. Wild, Emblems and enigmas: Revisiting the ‘sword’ belt of Fernando de la Cerda’,Journal of Medieval History, 37 (2011), 395; Idem, ‘A gift inventory from the reign of Henry III’, English Historical Review, 125 (2010), 535-36.
[iii] C. McDowell, The Anatomy of Fashion: Why We Dress The Way We Do (London, 2013), 77.
[iv] E. Dawson, ‘Comfort and Freedom’: The Duke of Windsor’s Wardrobe’, Costume, 47 (2013), 205-206.