Frequent readers of this site are familiar with the modern incarnation of denim. The standard five-pocket jean, while pretty detailed, is missing a whole slew of design features that were ubiquitous in the early 20th century. One fairly familiar detail that is seen in a lot of reproduction models today is the back cinch. Placed on the yoke of the jeans, it was a common way for the wearer to tighten the waist before the widespread popularity of belts. The back cinch, like other vintage details, has significant historical reasoning behind its removal.
As is what seems like law, all denim history begins (and ends) with Levi’s. The now-legendary West Coast brand’s relationship with the back cinch dates back to as early as 1872, where its function was to tighten the waist in an age when belts were not commonplace. In 1873, Levi’s patented its now-famous riveted design and it was coined the XX.
Fast forward to the 1890’s. The 1890 501® Jean was the first style created after Levi’s lost the patent for riveting clothing that same year. The loss of the patent meant that the company would have to add details to further differentiate themselves from the inevitable onslaught of imitators and new competitors. The brand kept the back cinch and its famous (but no longer wholly their own) rivets, while replacing the name XX with the now universally-known 501® lot number. What’s interesting about the 1890 501® Jean is that it also featured a crotch rivet at the base of the fly – something that would ultimately go the way of the back cinch.
The next landmark Levi’s release was the 1922 501® Jean, which marks the first version of denim where belt loops were used. Up to the 1920’s, belts were largely considered decorative and reserved for military uniforms. However, after World War I belts began appearing on high-end clothing, eventually being adopted by younger men returning to the workforce. Even with the option of a belt, the suspender buttons and back cinch stayed. Usually, younger men cut the cinch off to use a belt, and older gentlemen used the cinch and suspender buttons while ignoring the belt loops. By keeping both options, Levi’s ensured many first-time buyers would continue to buy their jeans.
The 1933 501® Jean was similar, offering buyers the option of cutting off the cinch and removing the suspender buttons in favour of wearing a belt. By now it was so popular to cut the cinch and suspender buttons off that Levi’s retailers kept a large pair of fabric scissors on the shop’s desk just for the occasion. After the purchase, they cut off the cinch right at the rivet and snipped off the suspender buttons before leaving the store. Keeping a similar path, the 1937 added the famous red tab but also removed the suspender buttons; now, customers could buy press-on buttons if they still avoided a belt.
Signalling an end to the era of the back cinch, the belt finally took over in 1942. The stepping stone 1944 501® Jean release was completely free of a back cinch, suspender buttons and a crotch rivet. Besides the unstoppable popularity of wearing a belt, the resource crunch of World War II mandated by the United States government told all clothing manufacturers to remove a certain amount of material from their garments. With that, the back cinch wouldn’t be desired by customers until the reproduction movement of the past decade or so.
Although the back cinch is no longer entirely functional, for those seeking a re-pro look have the many Japanese brands, in addition to Levi’s Vintage Clothing, to thank. Feel free to add repro favourites of yours in the comments section below.