Strapping Into the History of Belts

When you think of essential fashion accessories, the belt surely appears high on the list. But have you ever wondered about its origins? If you’re like me, the answer is “probably not”. To tell you the truth, I’m mostly ambivalent about belts. In an ideal world, all of my pants would fit my waist perfectly and my belt loops would remain forever unencumbered. Unfortunately, this is the real world, and I am someone who was blessed/cursed with thunder thighs that could crush a watermelon, and as such find myself usually sizing up on trousers.

Belts have come a long way from their earliest beginnings. Whether it’s an ostentatious branded buckle from a French fashion house whose name you can’t pronounce, a rugged leather piece that wouldn’t look out of place in the Wild West, or a sustainable option for the eco-conscious consumer, belts have and will continue to evolve, holding together the fabric of our favorite pantaloons from the perils of gravity and potential humiliation. The path from utilitarian strap to sartorial staple is a winding one, and we’re here to buckle you in for the ride.

If you need some primers on belt styles or simply want to jump into some buyer’s guides on the subject, check out:Common Belt Styles, Explained, Garrison Belts – Five Plus One, and Stationed in Style – The Garrison Belt.

The Belt’s Primitive Origins


Bronze belt circa 350-325 BCE via The Met Museum

Belts have a rich history that dates all the way back to the Bronze Age. Originally they they were essential tools for survival. Created from readily available materials like plant fibers, softened tree bark, and animal hides, early belts served a pragmatic purpose. They were primarily used by our ancestors to carry tools and weapons, helping them to complete daily tasks and providing easy access during hunting or combat.

Another one of the earliest forms of belts in recorded history is the military girdle band. These were strapped around the waist and were meticulously designed to keep weapons securely in place. Such belts were crucial in the context of warfare and defense. Leather belts, revered for their flexibility and durability, became a staple in Greek and Roman military attire. Their adaptability allowed for greater freedom of movement, and they also provided a certain degree of protection to the wearer. An interesting evolution in the use of belts can be observed with the introduction of the “cingulum”. This was fastened around the waist and held a dagger. It also had several leather strips decorated with studs for decoration. This was not only a tool holder but also a symbol of prestige and rank within the military hierarchy. Roman soldiers donned these decorative belts, and the more elaborate the belt the higher rank it signified.

Reconstruction of the cingulum of the Roman Legionary circa early 2nd century AD via

Belts weren’t just limited to soldiers during this period. Emperors also wore more ornate versions, typically with a toga, which were fashioned shut with gold fabric tied around the waist. This marked a shift where belts began to serve as indicators of status and not just functional items.

As time progressed into the European Middle Ages, the merging of diverse cultures led to an evolution in fashion. Belts and girdles became common accessories, worn with a variety of garments such as trousers, tunics, and robes. Despite this expansion in usage, the primary association of belts with utility remained. Knights, for example, often wore scabbards attached to their belts to keep their swords in place, and artisans used belts to hold tools and instruments.

A significant change occurred with the arrival of the early modern period. In the 16th century a new style of trousers, known as “breeches”, gained popularity. These breeches often came with buttons, buckles, or drawstrings, negating the necessity of belts to hold them up. Nevertheless, belts continued to enjoy popularity as decorative items.


The Belt Buckle


Byzantine belt buckle from the late 6th or 7th century via Walters Art Museum

Like the belt itself, the earliest known buckles date back to ancient times, around 2000 BC, with early examples found in regions like China and ancient Mesopotamia. These early buckles were crafted from Bronze and were essential items for soldiers, helping to secure clothing and carry weapons. The designs were simple yet functional, reflecting the utilitarian needs of the period.

As civilizations progressed, so did the design and significance of belt buckles. By the era of our good friends, the Romans, belt buckles had become more ornate, often depicting scenes from mythology or showcasing the wealth and status of the wearer. The Romans also improved the functionality of buckles by introducing new designs that provided better security and ease of use.

During the Middle Ages, belt buckles became larger and more decorative. They were often crafted from precious metals and adorned with jewels, reflecting the social status of the wearer. With a revival in art and culture, buckles displayed intricate designs and craftsmanship. This period also saw the rise of heraldic designs, with buckles displaying family crests and other symbolic imagery.

In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution brought about mass production, making belts more accessible to the general public. This period saw a variety of buckle designs and materials, including steel, brass, and later, plastic. The mass production of belt buckles coincided with the rise of military uniforms and the widespread use of belts as a fashion accessory.


Early 1900s Texas Rangers wearing cartridge belts stuffed with modern-era smokeless powder rifle cartridges via True West Magazine

In the 20th century, various subcultures, especially in the United States, began adopting unique buckle designs to signify membership or allegiance. For instance, the biker and cowboy subcultures embraced large ornate buckles, often with emblematic designs.

Belts and the Military


Civil War soldier, circa 1863 via American Civil War Museum

In the 19th and extending into the 20th century, belts further solidified their association with weaponry and the military. During this period, soldiers often donned suspenders underneath their jackets to hold up their trousers, while belts were worn on their jackets to secure their weapons and tools. The martial aesthetic became so intertwined with belts that a tightly cinched waistline emerged as a symbol of a disciplined soldier. This trend reportedly drove some officers to the extent of wearing corsets to further change the belts, which also created the aesthetic of a broader chest.

Union Soldier I via

During the American Civil War, the evolution of belt designs evolved with soldiers often sporting metal belt buckle plates. The front of these plates often bore artwork or abbreviations, signifying the soldier’s army division or state of origin, making the belt not just a utility accessory but also a badge of identity.

Italian soldiers wearing a variation of the M30 Uniform in 1941 via

The emerging demands of modernizing warfare in World War I and World War II significantly impacted military attire, with a pressing need for soldiers to carry an assortment of tools, ammunition, and personal items in a handy and accessible manner. This led to the evolution of the utility belt, which was equipped with pouches and loops to hold necessary items. The utility belt became an indispensable part of a soldier’s gear, designed for efficiency and ease of access in the demanding environment of a battlefield.

As soldiers returned home post-war, they brought with them the practical utility belt concept, which gradually melded with civilian fashion. The rugged, practical aesthetic of the utility belt became symbolic of a hardy, no-nonsense approach to life. This transition to everyday fashion was emblematic of a broader societal shift towards a more casual style, reflecting the changing values of the time.

The Belt as We Know It


Iron Heart Heavy Duty “Tochigi” Leather Belt With Brass Garrison Buckle, available for $210 from Iron Heart.

The standardization and popularization of the leather belt with a metal buckle emerged more distinctly in the 20th century. Before this belts were often custom-made, and their designs varied greatly. However, with the advent of mass production, the need for a more replicable and practical design became apparent. This led to the establishment of the belt design we know and love today: a leather strap, often featuring a series of evenly spaced holes and a metal buckle.

The reason for this design was both practicality and aesthetics. The leather strap provided durability and flexibility, essentially for daily wear. And the holes allowed for adjustability, accommodating various waist sizes with ease. The metal buckle, apart from being sturdy, also offered an opportunity for personal expression, with various designs and engraving becoming popular (more on that later).

By the early 20th century, this design had become widely accepted and remains relatively unchanged to the present day. The simplicity, efficiency, and elegance of the leather belt with its metal buckle ensured its staying power, making it a wardrobe staple across the globe.

Belts in Pop Culture


James Dean via British GQ

The iconic images of Holywood stars such James Dean or rockstars like Jim Morrison in a tee shirt, jeans, and a leather belt became synonymous with a new, laid-back yet rebellious ethos. It was a far cry from the more formal utilitarian attire of previous generations.

The world’s fascination with the Western aesthetic also came to the fore. The demanding lifestyle of cowboys, who spent long days in the saddle herding cattle, required durable and functional attire. The wide leather belt emerged as a crucial part of a cowboy’s gear, serving as a sturdy support for essential tools and holsters that carried revolvers for taking down outlaws.


Still from Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) via The Independent

The utility belt also found its way into popular culture, often associated with action heroes and adventurers. Batman’s belt, equipped with its unpredictable array of gadgets and tools, became indelibly lodged in the pop culture consciousness.


Batman series (1966)

On the runway, belts have morphed into high fashion items with luxury maisons like Gucci, Hermes, and Louis Vuitton elevating them from mere waist fasteners to symbols of status and style. The iconic buckles of these brands often bear their distinct logos, which have been popularized by rappers and celebrities for decades.


Lil Uzi Vert wearing a Gucci Belt via Vogue


Jim Morrison in his signature concho belt via Vogue France

Quality Makers of Leather Belts Today

Almost every clothing brand has, or has made, a belt of sorts in their time. In the spirit of owning things we want to use forever, we like to support independent, artisan makers when it comes to daily accessories like belts. Here are some makers of excellent leather belts:

Stay tuned for our upcoming article: The Three Tiers of Leather Belt – Entry Level, Mid-Tier, & End Level Belts.