Belts are one of the oldest and most enduring pieces of human clothing.
This article will give the full history of belts going back to the dark ages, all the way to modern day.
It’s no coincidence virtually every civilization has had some kind of belt-like device ever since clothes became a thing, but have you ever wondered exactly how this came to be?
Belts can provide a surprising amount of insight into human development throughout history, giving us an understanding of what people were doing at the time and what kind of uses belts may have had.
It’s also interesting to see just how much things have changed between then and now. So sit back and relax as we explore the history of belts in more depth than you’ve likely ever thought you wanted to before.
The First Belts
The first belts in history were found to be worn by people in the Bronze Age, anywhere between 3300 and 1200 BCE.
There are references to these early belts all throughout the ancient world, typically in Europe and parts of Asia.
While certain belts may have been made of leather, most were more akin to lengths of cord or string tied at the waist to secure the trousers.
Other than keeping your pants on, though, these belts were also used purely for fashion or for hanging pouches off.
Turn of the Millennium
Around the switch from one era to the next, belts also began to change things up a bit.
While the traditional belt was still in use, the girdle also became somewhat popular.
Similar though different from the undergarment of the same name which wouldn’t be invented for many hundreds of years, they were cloth cords or strips of fabric that offered both compression and support for a variety of reasons.
Men primarily wore these girdles to keep their tunics in place and to provide areas to hold weapons or equipment near the hips while women would often fasten them below the torso as a means of accentuating their breasts.
For the sake of fashion, some people would even wear two girdles at once on different areas of the body to make a sort of pucker in between them.
The girdle eventually began to gain significance in the Christian faith, symbolizing things like protection, chastity, and readiness to serve God.
Priests would even hang scriptures off their girdles to read from.
The Dark Ages and Renaissance
In Medieval Europe, belts and girdles were used largely the same as the ages following up to them.
One of the key differences between this and other time periods was that, leading up to it, women largely stopped wearing belts but rediscovered both their usefulness and fashionability around this time.
Military girdles also started to gain prominence, with some armies adopting different colored belts to denote the ranks of their forces as well as an easy indicator of allegiance while on the battlefield.
Additionally, belts became somewhat of a status symbol in a way.
Depending on the city, a decorative or well-made belt could be seen as a sign of being higher class, with some people (particularly women) even being forbidden from wearing belts at all despite their everyday utility.
17th Century and Beyond
The use of belts for military ID grew more prominent, with the Thirty Years War in the early 1600s being one major example.
Belts were primarily worn by men during this time period and the 1700s, women’s fashion largely doing away with the belt for some time.
In the 1800s, the invention of suspenders largely started to phase out the belt due to the high-cut waists of trousers at the time making them difficult to wear comfortably.
Once exception to this came in the form of military officers, who would often intentionally buckle their belts extremely tightly to give the impression of a slim, triangular figure to be more imposing.
Women around this time began to wear belts and sashes once more, though primarily in conjunction with dresses to help define the waist.
The Swiss belt (pictured) was one popular option, typically being black and laced in the back for maximum visibility to make the upper and lower portions of the dress appear distinct from one another.
One area belts were fairly common in were sports, especially with regards to the circus.
As athletes typically wore minimal clothing to aid in freedom of movement, shorter and looser pants were a common sight.
As such, belts were a necessary accessory for keeping them from being disrobed mid-game.
1900s and Present Day
One of the first major changes to belts came in the 20’s, with the flapper movement largely rejecting belts for women in favor of the iconic long dresses, a stark reversal from just 10 years prior.
This was not universally the case, however, as some still embraced the belt and decorated it in the same style as the rest of their clothing.
This would slowly begin to change, however, as the 30’s became a time when more women experimented with wearing pants, consequently requiring belts to hold them up.
Around this time, men also began to wear belts once more.
Having grown used to them from serving in World War I, suspenders became less and less common in terms of everyday wear, eventually becoming relegated to underwear status.
Belts of the 30’s, especially for women, were on the slimmer side compared to many of their predecessors.
Buckles, as well, were often small or even nonexistent, being sealed together with knots or even glue in some instances.
Though men’s belts typically served the practical purpose lost when suspenders fell out of fashion, women’s were almost purely aesthetic if worn with a dress.
It was around this time that pants started to feature belt loops as a standard feature, only increasing the popularity and ubiquity of the belt.
Even so, the relative fragility of the buckle on women’s belts was still an issue, made from easily broken materials.
However, this did open up many options for stylization, with the buckle being more for decorative purposes than anything else with numerous unique designs.
Belts began to gain in thickness as the 40’s began, with different belts expected to be worn for different occasions.
Both men’s and women’s belts had secured their place as a near-essential element of fashion, with stylish leather and suede being two coveted options.
However, by World War II, belts lost much of their sense of style due to material shortages.
As such, they became more uniform in appearance and were made from cheaper but still durable materials. Many still accessorized their belts with small metal pieces, loops, or other designs.
By the 50’s, though, supply shortages were no longer an issue, belts seemingly expanding to coincide with this boom in materials.
Women’s belts in particular started to become much wider, up to five inches from top to bottom.
The Cinch Belt
The cinch belt was also invented at this time, being made from durable elastic material in order to mimic the look of a standard belt while being much more comfortable to wear around the waist and easier to move in.
Some belts were even covered in fabric to match the wearer’s clothes.
With the 60’s, one major change to how belts were worn was their location; specifically, this meant they lowered from the waist to the hips.
Keeping many of the stylistic signifiers as 50’s, including their width, colors, and materials, these belts were somewhat similar to the previous decade.
One addition, however, was the increased usage of metal in belts, especially toward the end of the decade. Some belts were even made almost entirely from metal, giving off the appearance of jewelry.
Even more traditional belts incorporated more metal elements into their designs, often making the larger metal buckle the focus of a particular look.
1970s to 1990s
From the 70’s all the way to the 90’s, a clear transition can be seen with how belts change in style.
While the 70’s featured many of the same experimental elements as the preceding decades, these were slowly phased out come the 80’s as leather took over as a default material for belts.
Additionally, their width began to shrink, as well, with belts falling out of favor as a fashion item and becoming more of a simple accessory necessary to hold up the pants.
By the 90’s and all the way up to the present, belts are largely uniform in material and appearance.
The standard belt is a medium sized neutral-colored leather fastened with a complementary-colored metal buckle.
Belts are rarely meant to be looked at with an outfit, simply meant to blend in with the rest of a look.
One of the few exceptions to this would the studded belt, often associated with punk or grunge subcultures, which sports metal or plastic spikes around its exterior.
Belts of different colors could also count but less out of a sense of invention and more by comparison to the more typical coloration of most belts.
For most of the 20th century, a key feature to the belt has been the buckle.
As mentioned previously, a belt’s buckle was subject to just as much innovation as the rest of it, with designers making specialty buckles from all different materials.
Rather than simply serving the purpose of holding the belt together, these buckles were meant to stand out as the focus of a fashionable item.
While not quite as common today, designer belt buckles still exist.
This can be most prominently seen in the American south where belt buckles are routinely intended as a fashion statement, being large, colorful, and garish to draw attention to the wearer.
Belts and their buckles can also be trophies of sorts, with sports like wrestling, mixed martial arts and boxing awarding exceptional athletes with championship belts to commemorate their success.
Over its centuries of use, the belt has had numerous modifications made to it.
Whether these are functional or aesthetic in purpose depend on the belt in question, but there are a smattering of examples in each camp.
Here’s a few of the more prominent types of belt variations seen throughout history, many of which are still in use today.
A utility belt is simply a belt (perhaps one more rugged or larger than the norm) with pouches or other spaces to store objects.
Often synonymous with superhero comics due to their prominence on characters like Batman, real world examples are typically not quite as fantastical but still convenient for all manner of working situations.
Solid colored cloth belts are utilized to show a person’s rank in many forms of Asian martial arts.
Modern interpretation of these practices often have students wearing white belts as beginners and progressing up through different colors until earning a black belt, signifying mastery.
An obi is a kind of sash used for a variety of styles of garment in Japanese culture, most notably the kimono.
Unlike other belts, the baldric is meant to be worn over the shoulder.
These belts have typically been worn by military personnel as a means of carrying swords (both decorative and practical) or other items like drums and bugles.
Before the invention of pantyhose, people would use a device called a garter belt to hold up their stockings.
Fastened around the waist, the garter belt had two clasps hanging from each side roughly the length of where the wearer’s stockings would end, allow them to attach the belt to the stockings and hold them up with ease.
Typically made from cloth, these belts are worn around the waist when someone is preparing to perform a feat of upper body strength.
The extra material in the back help to support the core muscles, keeping the weightlifter from pulling a muscle or injuring their spine.
Handmade Leather Belts
Of course, I did save the best for last...handmade leather belts.
While their appearance, purpose, and even necessity have varied over the years, belts have been a part of human life in one form or another for millennia.
With the world of fashion ever-changing, there’s no telling what the next leap forward will be when it comes to belts.
Regardless, they’re sure to be around our waists just like always when it happens.
This article by Vintage Dancer is an excellent pictorial of the fashion changes and evolution of belts between the 1920s through to the 60s.
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- The History of Leather
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- Handmade Front Pocket Wallets
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