Today belts are not only worn to keep one's trousers or skirt in the ideal position but also for beauty, to be a fashionable accessory or make an individual statement. The first belts were purely articles of utility in the same way the modern handy man has his belt loaded with his tools to be handy when in his workshop or up a ladder. Belts have been part of men's clothing since the Bronze Age, but they were periodically en vogue for women until the last decades when they have become a common part of ladies clothing. While not only having the potential to be beautiful and add sophistication, belts can serve many purposes for a woman such as dressing up a little black dress or work outift, adding class to an otherwise plain outfit, to give a waistline, to draw attention to a small waist, to join two separates together, to complete an outfit (jeans look positively bare without a belt), to coordinate or tone harmoniously with other accessories, to flatter fuller figures and of course to keep one's garments in the correct place. Ladies, unlike men, seldom use belts to carry other items – in fact to do so would be considered either urban or uncouth.
The fascinating history of belts
Soldiers in a cinch
Although popular with men for centuries, in the era of Julius Caesar belts were deemed somewhat Cartoon poking fun at Russian officers effete. It is quite amusing that the first wearers of the cinch belt, a wide belt that drew in the waist to improve the stature of the person, were men i.e. soldiers of East European and Russian armies in the latter part of the 19th Century Such waist cinching belts were primarily worn by officers, some of whom also wore small corsets to make their waists smaller. They were subject to ridicule from cartoonists of the time, not only for this but their reputation of endless drinking – see cartoon left courtesy of http://napoleonistyka.atspace.com.
Soldiers throughout history have often worn belts – the Greeks and Romans certainly had them in leather to carry weapons and for tying their tunics, still allowing freedom of movement. Many brass rubbings show hip belts work in the Crusades period around A.D. 1277. Sometimes a dagger would be concealed in the cloth that bound the waist of an 'infidel'.
All powerful belts
What the soldier wore upon his belt could also act upon the enemy. For example amber shunned the evil eye, sapphire avoided captivity, amethyst blocked weapon attacks, emerald insighted triumph over sin and brought joy. The belt was so revered in its role in victory that the Mongols sealed alliances with the exchange of belts and the Franks believed a man took on the power of his enemy once he had seized the enemy's belt. Is that why sisters steal each other's clothes?
Dreaming of belts?
Interestingly in dream interpretation a belt, particularly an ornate one, symbolises power. Garuda's Dream Dictionary tells us how: the belt, especially if featured in a man's dream, is a symbol of erotic needs for dominance over others; dreaming of finding a belt means you are winning the trust of someone, dreaming of the loss of a belt signals woe in love matters; and coming across an old belt in a dream means that all efforts and struggles are pointless.
Belts for women through history
A ladies belt is not the new bag in fashion terms (aka "brown is the new black" style), it is the bag's predecessor. Women in the Middle Ages would carry their purses and fans upon their belt until the bag was born and then there was no looking back. Belts for women were free to become more of a style statement but did not really kick off until 1900 to 1910, when worn with blouse and long skirt combos typically as a boned silk sash with a v shape at the front to emphasise the small waist. Waist belts remain popular although nowadays ladies belts are also worn on the hips, just above the hips or below the bustline.
Art Nouveau buckles have become collectables and serve as inspiration for design today. This belt buckle left) is a piece of sculpture created in fine silver and enamel in 2008 by Salvatore Salamone.
Here are two more examples of original Art Nouveau buckles: Black Art Nouveau buckle (shown below right) from www.vintageandmodernjewellery.co.uk
and 1899 buckle by Rene Foy scanned by George P Landow (below left)
Do you know who I am?
Some belts still mixed utility with decoration – the most famous probably being the coronation belt of the Shah of Iran dating back to at least the 17th century AD. Not only does it carry a sword but it has one enormous emerald and some two hundred diamonds on a band of solid gold. The bling bling quotient of a belt denoted status. Tutankhamun's attendants wore plain cloth while Tutankhamun's belt was heavily studded with garnets. Belts were so important that even over the first bandages around the waist of his mummy was a belt of gold with glazed beads.
Materials used to make ladies belts
What spurred the development of belts on was the availability of materials such as metal, cloth and leather. The rich were the only ones who could afford silks and brocades when they first came from China via the Great Trade Route. The Industrial Revolution made cloth popular. Leather was the key material to start with and rather than being a luxury, it was an everyday material used for a gamut of articles from vessels to furniture. Leather is more durable than suede and more likely to be colour fast.
Leather belts continue to be the most popular womens belts today because of their durability. Designers tend to prefer to work with leather because it is supple, strong and full of its own natural character. Calf skin has a marvellous grain and is ideal for strong belts in simple designs. Cowhide leather is stiff and difficult to work. Sheep leather is abundant in Australia and New Zealand but harder to work with for manufacturers. The sheepskin of choice for belts is Persian leather and suede, so called because it is imported from India through the Persian Gulf. These skins are small but beautifully grained and very malleable. Pigskin is harder to source but has an interesting texture. Pigskin split suede quality is not always good but is good for achieving an array of colours. Leather is usually fashioned to look like reptile skin rather than actually being made from reptile skin to protect some endangered species and also because as you'd imagine, for example it is easier to wrangle/farm a cow than a snake.
Imitation leather is also common as a cheaper alternative but can often break quickly so our advice if you want a belt to last is to buy the best quality leather belt you can. Some imitation leather effects are best created with plastics but these belts are sometimes lined with real leather to strengthen them. High quality non-leather or ecological leather, as it is also known, is offered nowadays to suit the preference of some vegans and vegetarians. It looks just as good as leather and can be hard to tell the difference with these vegan belts. Some colours, particularly browns, look more like real leather.
'Sagging' and school policy
The belt still has an important utility use for men and is also a weapon in the war against 'sagging'. 'Sagging' is the fashion for teenage boys, and men in their 20s who don't know any better, to wear their jeans practically falling off them so that their underwear is exposed. Seeing 'sagging' makes me think of fat camp and a sign of extreme weight loss. Many schools now insist that boys wear belts specifically around their waists.
One young school class in the US has got the belt craze declaring 9 June belt day and have a rather amusing website that gives advice on how to wear belts at different ages from their point of view. Check out our 'How to wear belts' page for how to wear belts and what belts to wear to suit your figure.
We went live on 9 June 2009 so that makes it International Belt Day!
Some mysteries of the belt are still left to be unravelled – looking down, ladies belts are typically worn and fastened clockwise while men's are counter-clockwise. If anyone knows why this is please let us know.
Sarah Hobson, Belts for all occasions, First edition, Mills & Boon,1975.