The rise and fall (and rise) of suspenders
Whether you associate suspenders with Wall Street or Larry King, up until the past century, they were more than just a statement piece; they were a necessity. From their conception in 18th-century France to the present day, their popularity has risen and fallen, often battling the belt. While belts ultimately won out, if indeed they have in this unprecedented work from home world of elastic waistbands, suspenders for men are still hanging in there.
Due to the nature of the accessory, one cannot accurately relay its history without including background information on the belt and trousers. Pants were invented by Eurasian horseback riders in the Bronze Age around 3,000 BC, but the belt existed well before to hold up tunics and other varieties of wraps.
While certainly more practical for equestrians, pants were regarded as vulgar by the majority of society. Greeks and Romans considered them barbaric, a term of exclusion often used to describe non Greco-Romans. As is often the case today, one can note that fashion in the ancient world was more than simple functionality. Even back then people wore certain garments to signal social status and ethnicity.
Gradually, after centuries of tights and breeches, trousers became proper menswear in the West during the 1820s. Like their predecessors, the original cut was high-waisted, rendering belts uncomfortable, if not useless, for gentlemen. Before the commercialization of suspenders in the 1800s, though, an early version of the same accessory had emerged in France in the 1700s.
Bretelles, constructed with ribbons or straps of silk put together, looped in the buttonholes of breeches to assist in the fight against gravity. Like their successor, bretelles served as undergarments; up until the 1930s it scandalized the public to wear suspenders uncovered. Historians know that Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin wore bretelles despite the fact that such naked truths were better left unmentioned.
Rise in Popularity
With the advent of trousers in the early 19th century, came the commercialization of suspenders for men. British tailor Albert Thurston is credited with the invention of the modern suspenders, or “braces” as they would have been and indeed still are referred to by the English. Thurston’s 1820s model differs from the elastic clip-on suspenders one would find in fast fashion stores today; he made the straps with boxcloth, a tightly woven wool, and leather loops attached to buttons sewn inside the waistband of trousers.
FURTHER READING: Braces vs. Suspenders: What’s the Difference?
Aside from materials, the shape of the straps themselves has evolved. Thurston’s first model had an H back; both straps went from front to back with an extra piece holding the parallel straps together. It resembled an uppercase H. X back suspenders, with two straps that crossed behind, came along next, and Y back suspenders, with two frontal straps that merged into one back strap, followed. All three kinds are still available on the market today. Laborers favor the H back, while the average consumer leans toward the X or Y back.
Thurston was not the sole inventor with skin in the game. Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, filed for a patent in 1871 for adjustable straps on all kinds of garments, both men’s and women’s. With the invention of the metal clasp in 1894, and its subsequent adoption in the manufacturing of suspenders, trousers no longer required interior waistband buttons. Yet, men today sometimes still opt for the classic look of button loops.
What Happened to Suspenders?
Aside from a small minority who cinched on belts each morning, men in the 19th century preferred suspenders. Only in 1893, due to a heatwave, did men temporarily shift to the belt. This would allow them to remove their suit jackets with decency.
In response to military uniforms in World War I, which entailed tight-fitting trousers with lower waistbands, the 1920s saw a rise in low-waisted pants, and consequentially, in part due to practicality and in part to changes in style, the belt won out.
While suspenders never became entirely obsolete, the majority of men shifted to wearing belts. This shift happened earlier in America, although England followed when the Duke of Windsor, also known as King Edward VIII before his abdication in 1936, sported belts.
What Are The Benefits of Suspenders?
Perhaps due in part to physicians, suspenders declined but did not fall. One doctor in particular prescribed suspenders to his patients for ergonomic reasons: to improve their posture and comfort. Men with a rotund build decidedly were encouraged to forego belts.
Dr. Ken Hansraj, a current spinal and orthopedic surgeon in New York state, recommends that those who carry weight on their belts also wear suspenders for increased comfort. The majority of patients who complain of back and neck pain wear belts and carry extra weight on their hips. Belts, if worn too taut, also press against nerves, which can gradually irritate wearers and cause numbness.
Police studies have shown that officers who wear suspenders along with their duty belts report more comfort while on the job. Lumberjacks, plumbers and other professionals in hard labor continue to wear suspenders at work, too.
Making a Comeback
Though their fate was in jeopardy momentarily, suspenders have trended in a multitude of ways since the mid century, making comebacks as statement pieces and sending cultural messages about their wearers. In the 1960s, young British working class men brought suspenders back into the aggressively masculine wardrobe by pairing them with blue jeans.
By the 1980s, teenagers adopted a similar look, letting the straps hang under the waist, while power-dressing men on Wall Street took a different route with the same accessory. The late resurgence of suspenders is linked to hipster and hip-hop culture, as well as a more widespread fascination with the early 1900s among young people.
Famous Suspenders Wearers
While Napoleon, Ben Franklin and Mark Twain wore suspenders, the original men’s fashion icon and Regency influencer, Beau Brummell, brought them into vogue. Certain celebrities from the 1930s onward popularized them, including actors Humphrey Bogart and Ralph Richardson, who made them iconic.
Richardson supposedly bought six pairs of Albert Thurston braces when World War II broke out in fear of oncoming fabric rations. In the ’70s and ’80s, Malcolm McDowell and Michael Douglas donned suspenders on the big screen. McDowell in A Clockwork Orange and Douglas as the infamous Gordon Gekko in Wall Street.
Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko; Larry King
On the silver screen, Robin Williams and Jaleel White as Steve Urkel portrayed characters with signature suspenders, while Larry King wore a wide variety of them for almost the entire stint of Larry King Live.
The music industry, as well as the film industry, has played a role in bringing back suspenders. David Bowie wore them on his Thin White Duke tour in the ’70s, and dapper rapper Fonzworth Bentley brought back the style in the early 2000s. Today, Harry Styles, Benedict Cumberbatch and Channing Tatum, to name a few, are keeping up the trend.
Are Suspenders Still In Style?
Much like other components of formal menswear, suspenders, although no longer an everyday accessory for most men, will continue to pull an elegant outfit together. There will be trends that come and go involving suspenders, but the timeless accessory, covered or uncovered, will remain an essential part of the classic look.
Thanks for reading.
He Spoke Style