The belt. An accessory? A tool? Just another article of clothing? Generally, it is a leather, say an inch-and-a-half-wide piece of clothing resting at our hips, holding up a pair of pants. But what happens when it's more? What happens when “the belt” becomes an accessory equipped to make or break an entire outfit? Or, what happens when it becomes a skirt like the Diesel Belt Skirt “scandal” circa 2022? Time and time again, the belt has proven to be a versatile piece, moving its way in and out of fashion trends over the last century… So let’s talk about it.
A quick Google search will tell you that the belt was first invented in the Bronze Age (3rd-millennium B.C.E.) At this point, belts were more like rope used to secure a toga or robe. Little did the Romans know Bella Hadid would be walking around NYC nearly 5,000 years later “double belting.”
Over the years, belts have held different meanings depending on context. One Dalgado article mentions that belts were highly honored in ancient Mongolian culture and could be used to create alliances. Meanwhile, the Franks only considered a battle a victory after an opponent's belt was confiscated. Today, the winner of an MMA fight is given a big, shiny belt never meant to be properly worn around the waist. Over time, we’ve seen that belts can be a ritualistic and cultural item, an iconic fashion statement, or a victorious trophy.
Throughout the years, the “it” waistline has moved up and down the body for both men and women, and wherever it goes, the belt follows. Though women had begun “belting” dresses in the late 1800s, belts became popularized in the Roaring 20s. At that point, women wore belts at the lowest point of their waistline, while men secured a pair of trousers with a belt just above the hip. According to Prohibition: An Interactive History, the low-waisted dress developed as a result of social and cultural changes that occurred throughout Prohibition. For the first time, Americans had more free time and an expendable income. Many women began exercising more, embracing a “boyish figure,” and experimenting with clothes and fashion trends. Eventually, this led to loose-fitting dresses and low waistlines. Men, on the other hand, were popularizing three-piece suits that had a higher-than-ever lapel. This led to high-waisted belt-wearing.
Then, between the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, women wore belts above the hips, synching in the waist of the dress to to give an “hourglass silhouette.” For 30 years, most belts matched the fabric of the dress it “synched” to blend in—it was a natural element of women’s fashion to follow the bodily trends of that time.
While the 1960s brought pants into the picture for women, the waistline remained as high as can be. All the while, belts were about an inch or two in width. It wasn’t until the 1980s when the “chunky” belt came to be. The now four or five-inch statement accessory was being used to create the hourglass effect.
By the time the 90s came around, the waistline was making its way downtown, landing in a neighborhood we now know as “lowrise.” Britney Spears, Beyonce, and Destiny’s Child pioneered the low-rise belted look of the late 90s and early 2000s. After just a few years, the trend took a pause as we saw a resurgence of the ‘thick belt' on Jersey Shore in 2005 and again on Kim K at the 2006 US Weekly Hot Hollywood Fresh 15 event.
The thick belt trend (shockingly) soared well into the early 2010s but suddenly dropped off the face of the planet, never to be heard from again.
And the “radio “belt” silence continued well into 2017. I mean, seriously, take a look at any iconic outfit between the years of 2010-2017 and you probably won’t see a belt. It wasn’t until late 2017 and early 2018 that the one and only Gucci belt made a huge comeback. Suddenly, it was the go-to item. And while TikTok fashion influencers laugh at Gucci belts today, in my opinion, the steady rise of the Gucci belt brought belts back into the fashion picture. While not everyone could afford a Gucci belt (myself included) I’m sure many people, like I did, bought dupes, thus enabling the resurgence of the belt as an accessory in modern fashion trends.
While the belt has become a hot ticket item in recent years, we’ve seen it appear in all kinds of ways… The skinny belt with a pleated dress, the thick belt with a tight-fitting bodycon, the black leather belt with a chunky buckle, sort of resembling a cowboy, and finally the flashy statement belt.
So where does that leave us?
Like most things in our society, the history of the belt is divided by gender and limited to the binary. “Women did this'' and “Men did that.” In my belt research, article after article stated that men used belts while women wore them. In other words, for men, the belt has been strictly functional and for women, it is a fashion piece used to accentuate the body.
As I took a look at the history of the belt, it felt impossible to avoid the gender divide. But I think all of that is changing. Today, we know there are so many more expressions of gender than just two, and there are a handful of fashion brands like Zara, Telfar, Ginew, and, Olderbrother who, seemingly, would agree. These brands seem to gravitate toward more gender-fluid expressions of style, with the belt being one of them. And although binary gender stereotypes continue to determine what society deems “the perfect body” for men and women—buyers—the world of fashion is adapting into a mindset that seems less concerned about who is wearing the clothing and more about what is fashionable.
In 2023, I’m glad to say the statement belt is making quite the comeback. Depending upon the look, today, the belt is worn high, low, and mid on the waistline. And really, everything and anything seems to go—even Bella Hadid’s double belt she debuted just a few weeks ago. So, take a chance and wear the belt you aren’t sure about because hey, it could just be a new version of the“chunky” belt fad I know we all miss so much.
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