Belts and Buckles

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A belt is any length of material that encircles and is secured around the waist. Popular materials include leather, fabric, and metal. Belts are worn by males and females to define the fashionable waist and for a variety of other functions in many world cultures.

Sometimes referred to as a girdle or sash, the belt was worn in the Bronze Age and in ancient Crete, Greece, and Rome and is mentioned in the Bible.

Belts accent the fashionable position of the waist as it travels from under the breast to its natural position to low on the hips. As shirtwaist and skirt ensembles became a popular option for women in the nineteenth century, they were often accessorized with contrasting belts. In the 1860s, the Swiss belt, a wide, back-laced, and usually black belt, defined a woman's waist. Belts held special importance again when the New Look dictated small waists for post-World War II women.

During the twentieth century, women's belts were often of the same fabric as their matching dress or coat. Belts of metal or plastic links have also been worn as trendy fashion accessories by women. Twentieth-century men almost exclusively wore leather belts to secure their trousers. Belts of webbing borrowed from military uniforms were another, more casual, option for males.

Functionally, belts relieve the wearer's shoulders of part of the weight of the garment. Another function of belts is for attaching items; during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, women hung chatelaines, cosmetics, mirrors, pomanders, and purses from their belts. Police officers in America continue to use belts to hold items such as their guns, clubs, and pepper spray, and carpenters and other tradesmen carry their tools in utility belts. In the twentieth century, garter belts, an undergarment, were used by women and children to hold up stockings before panty hose and tights became common.

Belts denote rank in the martial arts. Actually it is the color of the belt that denotes rank. Originally, there were three belt levels: white belt, brown belt, and black belt, with black belt as the highest rank. A common myth explaining this system states that all students started by wearing white belts and through use the white belts turned brown and then black over time. More likely the colored belt system was borrowed from the one used in Japanese school athletics, particularly in ranking swimmers. In the 1960s the white belt rank was divided into several different colored belt levels: yellow, orange, purple, blue, and green, as a way of showing progress toward the higher ranks. The ranking of the colors varies among each style of martial arts. Adding stripes to belts is another way of showing progress at the lower levels.

Belts can also reveal identity. In the military, opposing armies or regiments were identified by the color sash they wore (in the Thirty Years War), as well as different branches of the service (in the American Civil War for example, general officers: buff; cavalry officers: yellow; and medical officers: emerald). During the Middle Ages in some cities, belts were worn as a sign of respectability and position and women of questionable repute were prohibited from wearing them.

Infamous or mythical, chastity belts have endured in the popular imagination. Purportedly invented to ensure women's fidelity while their husbands were away during the Crusades, a woman locked into a chastity belt was effectively prevented from having sexual intercourse. Modern versions of the chastity belt are included in fetish gear.

Belts are also used to provide protection. Weight-lifting belts provide stability to the spine and lower back thus reducing risk of injury to the lifter. Delivery people and others who do lifting in their occupations wear similar belts. Seat belts are often complained about for being uncomfortable or for crushing the wearer's clothing. Several decades after automobiles became common, a movement started to promote motor vehicle seat belts. In the 1960s seat belts became standard in new vehicles, and in the 1980s, many countries began passing laws that mandated seat belt use for drivers and passengers.

Another twentieth-century device is the sanitary belt. Similar to a garter belt, a sanitary belt secured a woman's menstrual pad. These belts were popular and available into the 1970s.

Some belts act as currency. Natives of the Solomon Islands used belts of shell money. American Indians used wampum, belts of shell beads, as well.


Buckles are a common way to fasten belts. Often a metal-frame buckle may catch in holes punched into the belt. Sometimes the end of a belt is woven through the buckle to fasten it. And other belt buckles hook to fasten the belt.

Buckles can be very decorative—covered with fabric, studded with rhinestones, or elaborately carved or molded. In the early twentieth century, buckles of bone and shell were popular for females. Perhaps the most elaborate in design and size are western belt buckles. Ornate western buckles first appeared in the 1920s due to the popular western heroes in Hollywood films. Since then western buckles are sometimes given as trophies in rodeo competitions.

From the American cowboy's buckle to the Japanese woman's complex obi, belts and buckles are culturally and historically significant elements of fashion.

See alsoGirdle; Hats, Women's; Leather and Suede; Veils .


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Mark Schultz