The History of Belts: A Journey Through Fashion
A belt can be a fairly subtle accessory. They're super common and pretty popular, they have a great knack for pulling a whole outfit together, providing that final missing piece that makes your outfit really sing.
But where did belts come from? What's their story? It feels like they've been around forever (and they kind of have) but also feel a really niche piece of kit - a whole thing just to hold up your trousers? Sounds fake.
Let's delve into the history of the belt and take a look at how this fashion staple came into being. Now, realistically, there isn't much about a belt that can change over thousands of years. Sure you can get some snazzy designs in the modern day, but in terms of the core idea of what makes a belt, its pretty much stayed the same throughout history.
But as with anything, things evolve over time, changing the way they look and how they work - and belts, as unassuming as they may be, follow the same pattern.
What is the earliest known belt?
The first incarnation of the belt was more functional than fashionable, being used to carry tools or weapons. As far back as the Roman empire, belts were used to carry knives and swords so they’d be ready for combat, and have been standard military equipment throughout history. These would tend to be made of cord or string tied at the waist - think how you’d play dress up as a kid- but could even be used to carry pouches. Leather belts were also very popular in the Greek and Roman armies due to their flexibility, giving them freedom of movement during battles as well as a little bit of protection due to how strong leather is.
It's a similar story when you look at early women, who have likely been using belts since the Middle Ages as one of the very first incarnations of pockets. Tied around the waist to carry bags, sacks or pouches, these were concealed underneath clothing to keep whatever bits and pieces they needed close by. Worn either on their own or in pairs or threes, these pockets were accessible through openings in their dresses and petticoats and were actually quite huge… nothing like women's pockets today (but that's a conversation for another blog post…)
When did people start wearing belts?
In around the 19th century, belts became more decorative, but still kept their functionality to carry things, again with military uniforms in particular. Officers would wear tight belts around their waist, not only to hold their sabre but also to give the appearance of a trimmer physique. Officers would buckle their belts incredibly tightly to give them a V-shape, triangular-looking figure (think Chris Evans as Captain America…) This physique is still pretty sought after in the present day, but for the officers at the time it was supposed to be more imposing and intimidating. Belts considered to be a key piece of uniform because of this, with political cartoons of the time drawing the officers with these exaggerated figures to add to the comedy.
Belts have also sometimes been considered a status symbol throughout history. Alliances were sealed by exchanging belts, and some cultures believed you could get power over an enemy by seizing their belt. Even with their military roots later on in history, different coloured belts were used to denote rank and identify allies on the battlefield. You can still see the importance of belts as a status symbol today, with the colour of a belt symbolising a person's skill rank in martial arts and fighting sports, and even how boxing and wrestling competitions dole out championship belts to the winners instead of a trophy.
With that in mind, belts are another example of a women's fashion accessory being first created or worn by men. High heels, thongs and yes, even tights, all started off as being for men before switching genders - either for practicality or to make money.
When did belts become a thing?
Belts started moving away from utilitarian functionality to fashion accessories around the mid-1800s when trouser waists started to get lower and belt loops were created- making belts an essential accessory to keep trousers up. For women, the invention of handbags saw the belt go from functional to fashionable and be more of a style statement, wearing belts with skirts to help define their waists.
Interestingly, it was around this time that suspenders came into fashion, and were actually starting to overtake belts in popularity. Originally a contraption worn under clothes until the 1930s, suspenders were particularly useful for the super high-waisted trousers that were all the rage at the time and couldn’t be held up with a belt. They were even considered to be more inclusive than belts, fitting larger bodies too.
Then the 20th century hit and belts took the spotlight again, with suspenders being more of a fashion statement, especially when wearing what we’d think of now as vintage outfits (as well as hipster looks). Suspenders are very much a grandad accessory now, as cool as they look, or sometimes worn for every special occasions like weddings.
Women started to wear more trousers in the 20th century too, needing belts to hold them up, where before they’d use them to cinch in their waists when wearing skirts or dresses. Matching your outfit to your belt came in a big way in the 50’s, with the wartime period supply shortages over so there were more materials to make new clothes, eventually leading us to the present where belts are a staple accessory.
Are belts still in fashion?
In the modern day, all look very similar, usually being black or brown leather or leather equivalent. However, there are exceptions to every rule, with the studded belts worn by punks, goths and emo's being popular, as well as other statement belts trending every now and again. But belts have definitely been cemented as a staple accessory, tying a whole look together, coordinating with shoes or bags, cinching in your waist and just generally making you look put together and styled.
Now if only someone could make belts to fit every body. Oh wait - we did! Check out our amazing vegan belts designed to actually fit - no one size fits all here!