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July 04, 2006

Belts and Suspenders

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards:

What ever became of suspenders?

A few years ago, they had a mini-revival. But it seems to have flopped.

Larry King has been wearing suspenders probably since Franklin Roosevelt was elected for the first time. Plus, suspenders are his trademark, so he doesn't really count. But Dan Rather wore suspenders for a while, and what good did they do him?

In theory, suspenders should be functionally superior to belts and therefore belts would be expected to be the rarity. Suspenders, provided they don't become detached, can be adjusted just so in order to keep trousers at a desired position. The crease is maintained and there is no piling up of the legs atop one's shoes as can happen wearing a belt that can work its way down an inch or two during the day. This is why men's formal clothes are worn with suspenders and not belts.

My grandfather (1869-1963) wore suspenders. My father (1908-93) wore them with suits perhaps through the 1940s. My mother made me wear suspenders until I was seven or eight years old.

I hated suspenders. Still do.

For me, transitioning from suspenders to a belt was a milestone on the road to adulthood. Similar to the short-pants to long-pants transition for boys before, say, the 1930s.

The suspenders I wore had clips with teeth to attach them to the front side of my trousers; I can't remember whether the backside attachment was a similar clip or a button-loop. In any case, those clips were troublesome -- sometimes being hard to attach and other times becoming detached without warning.

Since childhood, the only time I've worn suspenders was when I rented formal wear. Not being used to them, they had an odd feel. The oddest thing was that the elastic allowed the trousers to do a mini-bungee jump with each step I took. My overall impression was one of insecurity: were my clothes about to fall off?

I'd like to wrap up this post with a profound sociological observation, but can't quite do so. The best I can come up with is to observe that the fall of suspenders and the rise of the belt roughly coincided with the start of the transition from males being relatively formally dressed to relatively casually dressed. And belts triumphed about the same time that men abandoned hats (baseball caps excepted).

Let me add that belts were commonly worn with casual clothing even when suspenders were pretty standard for suits. I suspect men perferred the apparently greater security of a belt and gradually stopped bothering with suspenders.

A final quick observation. Between 1950 and 1980 (approximately) waistlines on men's clothing have dropped. Higher beltlines are suspenders-friendly, lower beltlines are belt-simpatico. I'm pretty sure that the switch from suspenders to belts was a causal factor in the beltline change. There was a lag, however. Although I and all the other guys in high school wore belts (this was the late 50s), waistlines were still about belly-button high -- though not nearly as high as in the early 40s zoot suit era. It took another 25 years or so before the lower cut of Dockers pants and Tommy jeans prevailed, though the trend was in place.

Is there anyone out there who still prefers suspenders?



posted by Donald at July 4, 2006


I do. They are much improved over the earlier jobs. Only negative is that they look like you have no waistline at all. The ones with button attachments are very stable. The better clamps are very good too. There are quality suspenders and cheapos.
I wear them under sweaters and jackets where they aren't obvious. They are wonderfully comfortable. I may get up the nerve to just start wearing them. Also, I'd like to quote your blog and develop the thought sometime this week.
I hate adjusting my belt several times a day and the pressure it tends to put on your weight.

Posted by: citrus on July 4, 2006 11:46 AM

I have two or three pair, because in old age I am becoming spheroid. They range from stylish to awful. Gaudy, wide suspenders offend the eye, but the discreet ones that used to go with dress clothing remain tasteful to me. I am still more comfortable with a belt.

In recent years I've turned to fedoras, which my father wore, and I am truly enjoying them. I don't have the courage to try a Homburg, which my father also wore, and which were once the standard attire of diplomats and bankers and great men. But my two or three fedoras are a joy, and I especially enjoy wearing them here in Montana, where they are unheard of.

Try looking at 1930s and 1940s films to get a taste of the classic fedora. Try the greatest of all films, Casablanca, in which Humphrey Bogart looks marvelous in a trench coat and fedora. (I am also wearing a Brooks Brothers trenchcoat these days.)

This isn't an ad, but it is a reference: you can examine fedoras and even a Homburg at, a fine Houston hat company.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on July 4, 2006 3:13 PM

Suspenders have their virtues, however the fact that they are so uncommon is sort of self-perpetuating: if wearing suspenders didn't mark one as "different," more men might be willing to wear them.

Their brief revival in the late 1980's among certain younger men was marred in part by the fact that the wearers tended to be among the more annoying "upscale" sorts - young financial wizards who drove BMW's and played racquetball and generally acted condescending toward everyone else.

Posted by: Peter on July 4, 2006 7:51 PM

So far, I haven't needed them. But then again, a home-based narrator can be as sloppily attired as he wishes...and I take full advantage of the liberty.

My father wore suspenders every day the last 25 years or so of his life. They were his trademark and you can hardly find a photograph of him that doesn't reveal his favorite pair. He wore them out of neccessity since he was a wee bit overweight and had an increasingly hard time keeping his pants up. He was a real man. Fashion be damned. After he died, I kept his last pair of suspenders. They're hanging on a bookshelf next to the entrace to my sound booth.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on July 4, 2006 8:03 PM

Up until recently, I had planned to start wearing suspenders when I was old enough (say, 35? I'm still early 20s.)

What caused me to change my mind was a recent army training course in which we were all required to wear Sam Browne belts (Belt that goes around your waist with a diagonal shoulder strap attached to take the weight of your sword). I thought it was pretty cool until I needed to do a 2. Wow, what a hassle just to pull my pants down. In the stall next to me I could hear the splash of my neighbour accidentally dropping his shoulder strap into the bowl.

So after that lesson, I conclude that anybody who voluntarily wears anything that attaches the trousers to the shoulders is just nuts. I dread the days when I'll have to wear Sword + Sam Browne over jacket over pants with suspenders. Maybe I'll just skip breakfast on those days.

Posted by: Tom on July 4, 2006 10:29 PM

I definitely prefer suspenders—though this may be related to my general preference for a higher waistline. A belt really can't keep your pants far above your hips; no matter how tightly you fasten it at your waist, you taper below your waist and your pants will eventually fall to where they hit your hips. Suspenders can keep my pants where I like them, regardless of the shape of my gut.

Now, my preference for a high waistline is probably related to the fact that I'm very short-waisted; if I pull my jeans up so that they fit my legs properly, the button is about an inch above my waist proper. I might care less if I could find some pants that actually fit properly.

Posted by: Jadagul on July 5, 2006 2:01 AM

Richard S. Wheeler, you dress like the man of my dreams! I love the cut of men's suits from the '40's and have bought my husband beautiful clothes and hats which he never wears. *sigh* Re: suspenders, men's pants were still cut with the ease in the rise and the back of the leg needed to comfortable sit astride a horse through the '40's. That ease began to disappear in the 50's (think Gene Kelly) and was lost althogether in the 60's (How DID Robert Conrad sit?) I guess belts work better when they sit above the hips than around the belly?

Posted by: Bradamante on July 5, 2006 8:47 AM

Every stall in men's bathrooms has a survival from the suspender era - the hook on the back of the door. When men wore suits, with suspenders, the hooks were absolutely necessary. Suspenders make it impossible to take your pants down without taking your jacket off. And the hook gave you somewhere to hang your jacket - and your hat. Today's suits have belts, so the hooks are no longer necessary. But they're still there. Perhaps the suspender revival will happen before the hooks are discontinued or rust away from disuse.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on July 5, 2006 9:21 AM

"How can you trust a man who wears a belt and suspenders?"

Frank (Henry Fonda) in the film Once Upon A Time In The West.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on July 5, 2006 11:24 AM

Lots of tradesmen still wear suspenders, just like they wear bib overalls. There's seems to be a utility to them in the trades, as you crawl over roofs, under heavy equipment, and through construction sites. I'd never wear them for hard work, though, because I wouldn't want them snagging on dangerous stuff.

For dress wear, they're very comfortable, but they're still an enormous PITA. It also seems like yet another thing that has to "match" in your "outfit." If you have no fashion sense, and no desire to develop one, more matching = no good.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on July 5, 2006 12:08 PM

Pants really are worn absurdly low these days, aren't they? I see kids with their pants topping out literally below their asses, with great wrinkled masses of underpants visible above. But in some old movies, guys wear pants hitched up almost to their armpits, and I see Asian guys (mostly skinny and tiny) who wear their pants the same way today. A history of the male pant/waistline would be pretty interesting to read, if it were short enough ... Suspenders to me mainly mean a) retirement, b) flashy financial types from the '80s, or 3) embarrassing photos of me at the age of 4 being led off to church.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 5, 2006 12:44 PM

I've was pretty much on various roads over the long weekend and haven't been around to monitor comments until this morning.

Some scattered replies...

Citrus -- Go ahead and write about suspenders.

Richard -- Gee, I remember when Ike wore a Homburg for his inauguration in '52 and created a fuss because he didn't wear a topper. Those Homburgs sure are troublemakers, so be careful!

Peter -- Good point about the elite angle.

Tom -- Sam Browne belts in the Army? I thought that was over by early WW2 days. OTOH, I recently read where they're getting rid of those awful green uniforns and going to Dress Blues for more formal occasions.

But tell us more about the Sam Browne belt thing and the uniform/circumstance. Any links?

Robert -- Those hooks are still really handy for jackets, coats, etc.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 5, 2006 12:54 PM

I wear suspenders, or hupzelen as they are called here, of the proud Dutch brand "Police and Firefighters". And have done so since my teens. My waistline is small compared to my hipsize; belts simply look ridiculous.

Problem is, I hate suspenders with clips. And the shops here only sell suspenders with clips.

So, when my last pair with leather straps became too dirty to wear, I used the powers of Google to find me some new. And ended up buying them ,a href="">in a shop for party goodies [scroll down].

Posted by: ijsbrand on July 5, 2006 1:45 PM


Forgive me for veering into men's dress hats. Your suspenders essay pushed one of my buttons. American males are dressed less well now than in any time in my 71 years. And their appalling dress says much about what they think of themselves. And why is it that the cutest girls go for the scruffiest and dirtiest boys?

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on July 5, 2006 3:07 PM

Richard -- And why is it that the cutest girls go for the scruffiest and dirtiest boys? Uh, you're asking me to explain women, right? Nope. Not me. I don't go there. No way. It's (to give you the two-word explanation) Im-Possible.

As for clothing, I do know how to dress up, more or less (more than younger guys, less than the earlier generation). Alas, I'm lazy. Don't wear a necktie unless the situation calls for it. So I compromise by dressing sorta preppy when I'm not in outright blue jeans mode.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 5, 2006 3:30 PM

Haha, sorry Donald. I should have provided some background:

1. I'm Australian. We're talking about the Australian Army here. My understanding is that the U.S. military is much less heavy on ye olde style regalia and customs, although the U.S.M.C. is an exception.

2. For most officers, Sam Brownes are only worn on ceremonial occasions. The exceptions are the Adjutant (chief of staff, usually a Captain) and RSM (most senior NCO, always a Warrant Officer Class 1) who have to wear Sam Brownes on a day-to-day basis (except in the field, of course).

3. The third exception is on courses (away from one's home unit) - where, even in an office/classroom setting, all sorts of regulations can be introduced to increase personal discomfort. Forcing officer candidates (like me) to wear a sword and sam browne everywhere is an example of this. Another good one is placing dummies wearing officer rank everywhere so that course attendees have to constantly salute when walking around. And of course I'm sure you know the tradition of not being allowed to leave your seat during a dining-in night (which can consist of 5+ courses). Spike someone's food with a laxative and watch the fun.

Posted by: Tom on July 5, 2006 6:42 PM

Tom -- Thanks mate. Dinkum good! (Or whatever strange utterings yooze guys make).

It's nice to know that I wasn't getting too out of touch with the U.S. Army. But now I'm racking my brain trying to recall photos of Australian and British officers wearing (what the U.S. Army calls) "class A" uniforms. Nowadays personnel in most armies seem to be dressed in camo. That's what I see in photos as well as in person in restaurants where Fort Lewis troops sometimes stop in for a bite.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 5, 2006 8:07 PM

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