I’ve always loved suspenders — since my days as a young lad with a rather strict Catholic school upbringing, where suspenders were the uniform policy, up to this very day. There’s something wonderful about wearing suspenders, and not only because they hold the trousers up with far more grace than any belt ever could, allowing each leg to drop elegantly from the natural waist. I may be biased and wearing my nostalgia blinds, but I’d argue any day that suspenders are far more comfortable to wear than belts.
Or perhaps I simply enjoy the hubris that comes with refusing earth’s gravitational pull having any kind of hold on my trousers. Or it could be that I have fond memories of the girl in primary school who would pull on my suspenders to make then snap against my chest when I was a kid. Good times.
Point being, suspenders are great. Belts have reigned supreme for too long now, and it’s a damn shame.
Granted, fashion has changed a lot over the years since modern suspenders were invented back in 1820 by Albert Thurston. In those days, pants were worn high up, to the narrowest portion of the torso, which made belts impractical to wear. The earlier models were a smashing commercial success – they were typically “H” shaped and made from box-cloth, a variety of wool traditionally woven in Yorkshire.
Catalogue from Albert Thurston circa 1870
These days though, suspenders tend to convey an old-school feel at best and a downright passé vibe at worst, despite the clear fact that belts are far more ancient than braces. Case in point : Viking raiders used to wear belts, but you’ll never see a depiction of a Viking wearing suspenders.
A fun little anecdote : back in those days, suspenders were considered underwear! So the modern gentleman, ever the modest fellow, often wore a vest to elegantly cover his shame.
It’s a well-known principle that belts tend to cut one’s silhouette horizontally, to an often less than desirable effect, whereas a pair of suspenders tends to adds a subtle touch of verticality to one’s overall look, for an arguably more streamlined silhouette, which is always nice.
As such, a pair of suspenders is perfectly appropriate to compliment your Olympic-grade athletic physical qualities. But even if you possess the body type of a competitive beer-drinker, suspenders can be an excellent solution. In fact, British physicians back in the 19th century used to recommended wearing suspenders over belts in case of an excessively portly disposition ; the rationale was that belts would compress an overgrown stomach to some painful degree. If you can’t trust a 19th century doctor on medical matters, then who can you trust?
In 1871, Samuel Clemens applied for a patent for “adjustable and detachable straps for garments” :
The man history remembers as Mark Twain was not fully satisfied with Thurston’s invention, which he deemed too impractical to adjust on the fly, as well as too uncomfortable. His “clasp” system failed to leave a mark on men’s accessories’ history. However, the contraption went on to become the modern bra’s preferred fastening method.
This means that the man celebrated as one of America’s greatest literary geniuses also turns out to be the single greatest benefactor of many-a clumsy lover… Mr. Twain, you have my eternal gratitude.
It would not be until 1894 that suspenders with grip fastenings would finally appear, courtesy of David ‘not the guy from Van Halen’ Roth.
It’s quite sad to think that the accessory that inspired Mark Twain’s greatest gift to humanity would fall from public favor from the 1940’s onwards… even if there may be a revival underway these present days.
Humphrey Bogart loved his suspenders, and Ralph Richardson bought half a dozen pairs before the start of WWII, fearing that with fabric becoming a premium commodity due to the war, suspenders may prove hard to find (which was a fair concern since before the war began, production became sparse and military uniforms reverted back to the belt).
The vest (waistcoat) lost a lot of its appeal during the same period, which certainly didn’t help the state of the suspenders : let’s not forget that until relatively recently, elegant men didn’t dare show their suspenders, as it used to be akin to showing your knickers.
After the war, attempted revivals slowed down.
For a few years, young Punks and Mods, straight out of the UK, were often seen wearing suspenders, though sometimes hanging down from the waist, which kind of defeats the original purpose. No future indeed… ? The movement was short lived, because rust never sleeps, and suspenders faded back to obscurity once again.
The next big revival came with Oliver Stone’s 1987 Wall Street movie, in which a dashing Michael Douglas sports suspenders. Yuppies followed suit, and suspenders were in once again… for a little while. The momentum lasted for about a decade.
It seemed that trousers were doomed to keep falling down past the waist from the late 90’s onwards. Then I saw the picture below, and died a little inside :
Words fail me
Some would say suspenders are only worn by unfashionable geezers and swing-revival enthusiasts, Larry King, and perhaps also Bill Nye, which is a ridiculous notion. Wearing suspenders will certainly set you appart from the belt-wearing crowd, but it will do so in style, naysayers be damned.
But let’s not lose hope, suspenders enthusiasts out there, as the tide is beginning to turn. If history taught us one lesson out of them all, it’s that the height at which pants are worn is indeed like the tide : it goes up, and down, and cycles around. I’m not sure if the moon has any influence on the matter though.
As men grow more and more interested in personal style, the future of suspenders looks, in fact, brighter than ever. Case in point, Daniel “James Bond” Craig wore a dashing pair of Gieves & Hawkes suspenders in Casino Royale.
Churchill, quoting Georges Santayana, used to say “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it“.
So let’s not forget what a tragic mistake it was to let braces go by the wayside, and fight to keep our pants high and proud.
History is giving us a second chance. Let’s seize it.