Let’s talk about how we keep our pants up and why thin belts are the best, especially if they have vintage or western details.
Spencer and I did a podcast episode on this topic, which goes much more in details like suspenders and braces (as presented in the introduction of this essay), before talking about belts. It’s a good complimentary listen!
Introduction & Belt-Less Trousers
I’m not sure why the last few essays on this blog have been about me “returning” to things, but that’s just a testament to how most menswear journeys can be cyclical the more you get honed into your style. Belts are a big part of that. They’re practical and something I wear regularly across all outfits (provided that I have belt loops), but that wasn’t always the case.
Like most guys getting into menswear, I initially had an anti-belt purview. In my early days, I even opted for suspenders and put the brace buttons on any pant I got, new and old; this might have been more for bringing vintage in the contemporary day than the “clean” line. As time went on, I wanted that clean waistline, and since belts literally bisect your body at the natural waist (provided that your trousers are high enough), I tried to get as many side tab trousers as possible.
We talk about this desired aesthetic on the podcast, so be sure to give it a listen.
I was just trying to reflect what I was seeing in the menswear world, as most guys also opted for side tab trousers. They wanted to look as clean as possible, providing a great flow from the jacket and shirt to the trouser- it’s hard not to be enamored by that streamlined visual. The fact that a trouser doesn’t need a belt to fit its wearer properly is also a good testament to a good tailor, which is probably why many menswear guys like to exude that with belt-less trousers, even if they aren’t custom made.
It was also cool to stand out a bit and look vintage, even if the outfit wasn’t exactly meant to be period-accurate.
Personally, I think that belt-less trousers (this can include side tabs and self belts like pants from Pomella or gurkhas) are incredibly versatile. Even if we take out the whole “these are perfectly tailored, so they don’t need a belt” mentality, they’re still a great option. Since they remove the thought processes that normally plague belts (which I’ll get into in a second), they allow a trouser to be worn formally and casually. And as a guy who likes to tuck everything from spearpoints to tees, the belt-less waistband just looks way better. In that sense, this mentality is similar to why I love wearing loafers.
That being said, I’ve since come around to wearing belts (that’s not to mean I didn’t wear them before). While many of my custom trousers feature side tabs (and will continue to do so), I still find my self reaching for trousers with belt loops just as much. I’ve even bought a few belts during this quarantine, if you can believe it.
Now full disclosure, this is going to focus mainly on leather belts, as they are the most common in classic menswear and are most likely the belt you will typically wear.
The Appeal of Belts
I do find myself wondering why belts haven’t left despite the push for tailored, belt-less trousers.
I think the main answer lies in the fact that classic menswear doesn’t always have to be elegant at all times. There’s a reason why guys wear cotton twill suits or corduroy, despite it not draping as perfectly as a worsted wool. Or, as a nod to shoes, why despite loafers being comfortable and elegant, there are still men who like to keep a pair of lace-ups around. It’s a bit “rugged” when compared to a streamlined waistband, but it adds a bit of interest.
On that note, a belt is definitely more secure than wearing side tabs. Even if the belt holes aren’t exactly where your waist is, cinching it further is a great way to ensure your trousers stay up, as people’s weight and garments shift throughout the day- I find myself pulling up my stoffa trousers pretty often, especially if I’ve been walking around. Let’s not forget that if you eat too much at KBBQ, you can always loosen the belt as needed for comfort!
I also find that belt a great equalizer for trousers that are perhaps too lose. Maybe you lost some weight or perhaps you thrifted a pair of military khakis that you’re just too lazy to alter; a belt will keep them fitting. It may not be perfect, but it will at least fit! A belt-less trouser will not be as forgiving if it doesn’t fit quite close to the waist.
Obviously these are all reasons why suspenders/braces are often advised. And as you may know, I used to wear them quite a bit early in my journey but stopped as I got more into classic menswear. One such reason was the hassle of attaching the leather straps onto the interior trouser buttons. The real reason was simply that suspenders have an air about them, that didn’t necessarily work with the slouchy take on menswear that I was developing for myself. In the end, a belt is just so easy to throw on- who cares if it’s a little tight or a little loose! It even adds to the slouch of a pair of well worn chinos or jeans.
The belt isn’t going anywhere soon and I’ve enjoyed wearing it quite a bit, even if I don’t see myself commissioning trousers with belt loops intentionally any time soon. Plus, like with loafers, ties, and shirt fabrics, belts are an additional avenue to exude personality (or even subvert aesthetics). In fact, I think that most guys should be more cognizant of these details, since they can add some extra interest in an outfit.
It’s always about deciding not to “default” and instead, to find the more intentional, more exciting choice, even on something as subtle as your belt.
The Thin Belt
Again, the first step for getting into a piece of menswear and applying it to your style is usually getting some sort of inspiration. You have to turn the piece from something generic (like neckties) into something that you have a unique relationship with (like vintage or abstract patterns) and can find your own personal ways to style it. This has largely been the move for me as I’ve expanded my style recently, like with sneakers or shorts. But belts are a bit more challenging.
For many men, a belt is a utilitarian garment and as a result, design isn’t taken into account. I can’t blame them, as a belt is literally a long strip of leather with holes and a buckle- there isn’t much to do with design, at least that’s what I initially thought. I felt that belts were just so blah and that suspenders or side tabs were just infinitely more interesting. But soon, it occurred to me that perhaps it was simply because suspenders and side tabs had details that I liked. I needed to find that same draw in belts, so that they wouldn’t be boring to me.
As one would expect, this search for inspiration brought me to vintage. Early on in my journey, I gathered that vintage 1930s-1950s belts were rather special in that they were thinner than the typical belts that you found at the mall. Obviously the mall ones weren’t as wide and chunky as the ones from the 70’s (which look pretty gaudy with tight pants), but it was clear that the ones preferred by vintage enthusiasts were pretty slim, usually with a 1 or 1 1/4″ width (though some were even thinner).
Seeing these enthusiasts (and plenty of period photographs) really sold me on the thin belt. It just looked different, elegant even. The thin width (along with longer belt buckles) didn’t bisect the body as visibly as normal belts and appeared harmonious with the higher waist, fuller cut, and generous waist. It even looked best with hollywood waist/dropped loop trousers.
These men could still be seen wearing braces for enhanced drape, but the thin vintage belt provided a different allure that made for a slouchy, cinched-waist look that appealed to me and the direction my style was going. Eventually, I stopped wearing braces entirely- either I wanted a clean waist (side tabs) or a belt.
This revelation came years ago and has guided my belt journey (if you can call it that) ever since. Obviously thin belts with a 1″ width aren’t in vogue, so whenever I wore mine (bought dead stock from a vintage dealer), it intentionally added vintage vibes to my outfits. Even if my trousers weren’t as full cut as the ones worn in the Golden Era or had dropped loops, they still evoked that feeling. Adding in a subtle vintage vibe through the belts was like my preference for spearpoint collars or white socks.
Again, this was probably due to the fact that belts (and belt loops) got bigger as time progressed, becoming extremely wide in the 1970’s. Let’s not forget that belts became exclusively worn with casual wear rather than tailoring in the #menswear movement (as side tabs grew in popularity), which means that mainstream belts really didn’t need to change. Plus, I’m sure some people were into the chunky belt look with a sportcoat and jeans, as popularized by Ralph Lauren, who obviously took cues from western wear.
As I continued on my menswear journey, I began to see a few guys start to voice their preference for the thin dress belt, similar to the adoption of high rise trousers, wide lapels, and soft shoulders. I’m not sure if they also took inspiration from mid century menswear as I did, but perhaps they simply realized a thinner belt was more flattering, at least when worn with tailoring. Some guys wore women’s belts (which have always had a space for thin belts), while others sourced vintage as I did.
The thin belt began to be another detail to separate the classic menswear gang from the greater #menswear/dapper bro world that may not have paid attention to it! Its enough to show that you have an “extra” interest in menswear by being slightly outside the norm.
Sometimes it looked vintage, other times it just looked slouchy all around, with some skinny guys tying the excess length or letting it dangle in a louche way. I know that belts are more casual than side tabs and braces, but sometimes, that’s a part of the charm.
While the thin belt may not be completely wide spread, it felt nice to see it more represented in classic menswear. It made me enjoy wearing my thin belt even more and gave me inspiration to wear it intentionally, instead of just on odd days when I wore trousers that didn’t have side tabs.
And like sneakers before it, once I “unlocked” this mindset, I started to think of other ways I could have fun with my belt choice.
The Other Belts
Now while I think thin belts are best for classic menswear, it’s still a rather loose guideline. After deciding on width, the main way to have fun with belts is to experiment with the leather style and metalwork. This was certainly the way to go, especially as I felt like I was getting a bit tired of wearing the same belt all the time; in a similar mentality, I can’t imagine just wearing one pair of shoes or one jacket across my outfits.
The one that I think is classic, a bit popular in our niche, and probably the one I like the best, is the alligator/crocodile belt. With it’s iconic texture (whether genuine or done as a grain), it has this unique way of looking luxurious and elegant while also being rugged and delightfully retro. Obviously this is due to the leather style, as exotically textured leathers are just more interesting than smooth calfskin.
Seeing it used for suiting or even casually with chinos or jeans just has a fun vibe that contrasts against other more “proper” belt looks. We can just see this done to great effect across a variety of looks, like neo-prep from Sid Mashburn to a legitimate throwback aesthetic by Bryceland’s. I mean hell, alligator-croc belts were worn by men from all stars and stripes, as the vintage photographs suggest. I’m not sure what made them go out of favor, but I do like seeing them being brought back out by some of the lowkey tastemakers in the menswear space. It just looks so good as alternate to smooth calfskin belts, especially when done against pleats. It’s just so louche!
I personally think these croc belts are best done with a thin width (as its more conducive to the grain as well) but also with an rectangular, engine turned buckle. This is the one that allows for slide closure rather the traditional prong closure we know. The sleek metal plays into the retro vibe of this particular belt (especially if you get a deco design), as it just reminds me of early-to-mid 20th century menswear, whether it’s ivy or not. Ralph Lauren (and of course Sid) was a big proponent of it, so it immediately has a classic Americana look that again, isn’t too common in the wider menswear world at the moment. But then again, I’ve never been concerned with what’s mainstream.
The slide closure then brings to mind braided belts, which are similar in that they have texture (thanks to the weave) and that they are easily adjustable for different waists; both the slide-belt and braided belts can help you drill down on your exact measurements instead of being at the mercy of predetermined prongs.
In terms of vibe, its a bit more casual, at least in my eyes, due the thickness of the material. The aesthetic still presents a bit of an easy retro look, leaning a bit more 80s or 90s (though it was present back in the Golden Era) and has particularly been worn by guys like Aleks Cvetkovich. In my experience, they have a tendency to get light over time (or I happen to thrift light ones), so they aren’t exactly great for wearing with dark shell cordovan footwear. Either way, they’re a good alternate for the croc/alligator belt or a smooth sliding calfskin.
If you can’t already tell, I don’t really have much of an opinion on suede belts, but they seldom have anything special to them other than the material. Suede is a nice, louche fabric that has an easy going nature to it. Just think of how some guys prefer suede jackets over skin leather jackets. I think they’re good across any outfit, though again, they don’t have the same personality as the croc/alligator or the braided ones. If those two are a bit bold for your style, then suede is right here waiting for you!
Let’s now talk about the metalwork and buckles. I teased it a bit earlier when I mentioned my preference for engine turned buckles, but elongated buckles in general are what I think looks best (and compliment a thin belt well). This applies to whether its engine turned, rounded, or a squared-edge buckle. I personally think that buckles that are square (or just equal on all dimensions) look a bit “off”, unless they’re rounded or use a ring closure, both of which I like. I think that fully square buckles only work better with wide belts, which you don’t really see much of in the tailoring world outside of workwear. Perhaps there’s something visually slimming with a horizontally-wider belt buckle!
Silver will probably get you through most combinations, since they work well with black or brown leather. Bronze is an underrated choice, but it might be a bit harder to wear. Obviously gold is quite gaudy, especially when bought new, but I like the slight 70s vibe it brings. I personally don’t think that the metal color is important, but I know a few people can be hesitant on changing up, especially since there is that “menswear rule” of making sure your metals all match up.
Honestly, the real way metalwork comes into play are when you have fun or novelty details. I know many guys out there who routinely swap out belt buckles in order to change up the vibe; yet another reason why engine-turned ones are pretty cool, as those easily removed. Picking different buckles is yet another thing you can add to your list when hitting up the flea market.
As you could expect, the fun-bold ones like flags, emblems, words, or even scenes are best worn with denim (or if you’re daring, a chino), but that’s why they’re great. I personally haven’t done much in this arena, since my style leans more on the formal side, but I love seeing when my friends and contemporaries do it.
The most popular “novelty” belt is the western belt, which has really caught on in classic menswear thanks to the rise of workwear and the general late 60s-70s nostalgia (which can include our love of Ralph). Sometimes this can be as subtle as simply having the iconic rounded-but-edgy belt buckle with a silver cap at the other end, done on a calfskin or reptile leather. And then of course, you can go the other way and have a giant oval buckle made in silver and turquoise with decorations all along the body of the belt. It’s always up to you.
I’ve seen quite a bit of these western belts pop up in menswear, definitely as a novel extension of the croc/alligator belt. It takes something that’s already retro, rugged, and American and goes a 100% further. Whether it’s true vintage versions or sleek, inspired ones by Il Micio, I’m rather enamored by how its juxtaposed against tailoring and other facets of classic menswear. And as you probably expected, I believe that slimmer western belts are better for this approach, especially if it’s something you haven’t done it before.
Wearing it with jeans and a tweed jacket is a no brainer, but damn, I do love seeing it against pinstripe suits or even cream summer suits. In a world where we’re seeing more chambray/denim shirts with knit ties and sportshirts with the runaway collar, it makes sense that the belt choice gets a bit more casual too. The contrast creates a relaxed approach to tailoring that removes the formal and corporate vibes. After all, most “regular” dressers wouldn’t dream of wearing these belts with tailored garments.
Now I will say that despite all my protest, I admit that thick belts (and thick buckles) certainly have their place. Obviously, they work better with rugged outfits, but that’s because tailored garments (and even ivy) have loops and waistbands better suited for thinner belts. However, I’m certain that wide leg military chinos, work pants, and jeans of all kinds are great for it. Instead of subverting the vibes, you go all in on it. They don’t have to be inherently western, as barrel belts are plain (but still interesting), but it helps to give the outfit a bit of an edge.
I don’t have much inspiration for these, but as you can expect, it’s mainly all western or workwear themed fits with a bit of rockabilly thrown in. If you’re wondering, yes, thick belts in tailoring have precedent with Golden Era outfits of the 1920s-1940s (particularly earlier), but it’s not personally my taste and it would be quite difficult for me to see it done now; perhaps on something like workwear suits or other rugged-tailoring mashups would work well for it!
I’ll finish off this article with the belts in my collection! We start off with my most worn belt, which until quite recently, was the only [brown] belt I owned. You’ve probably seen it quite a bit across the blog as well as many times earlier in this essay.
Purchased from Benny Reese, its was a deadstock 1940’s “glove leather belt” that features a slightly oval buckle in a gold metal. In an interesting move, the buckle actually has a spring, allowing it to extend across slightly, which means that it can comfortably fit you as your waistband expands through the day. Modern belt makers should take note of this fun design.
The rounded closure and 1″ width contributes to its obviously retro aesthetic, which works well across my entire trouser wardrobe- my years of wear are visible! You’ve probably seen it anytime I’ve worn any pant with belt loops: wool trousers, jeans, and chinos. While I do love it, I was concerned with the amount of wear (it is over 60 years old after all) and that I’d be left in the dust if it fell apart. Also the gold buckle, which has faded over time, was still a bit too much for me, especially when it’s my only belt. It wasn’t boring, but I didn’t like that I had to default on this belt for nearly all my occasions.
In looking for a suitable alternate (and eventual replacementr), I briefly considered the Scott Fraser Collection belt, as it was well designed (thin!) and certainly looked nice, but I was a bit concerned with the price; I was confident I could perhaps find a vintage one with all my picking. In the end, a trip to Uniqlo for socks proved fruitful for this endeavor. On the way to check out, I noticed that they had a nice dark brown/burgundy belt that was labeled the “Men’s Italian Narrow Belt”. Luckily, I was wearing my own 40’s belt at the time, so it was easy to compare- it was around the same width, so I purchased immediately!
This Uniqlo belt has since been one of my good go-to’s for regular wear. I appreciate the dark color, as it meshes with shell cordovan quite well. The silver buckle also calls less attention to itself than the gold one, which makes it much easier to wear with all my outfits. It’s even softened up nicely over the few months I’ve worn it, though it clearly isn’t as soft and “vintage looking” as the 1940’s one before it. With that said, it serves its purpose well, being worn with full tailoring and ivy separates while appearing clean and neat- that’s all I really need.
I later picked up a thin calfskin Traflangar-RL belt from my friend Kiyoshi of Five in Blue, as he was doing a bit of quarantine cleaning. While I didn’t particularly need a new belt, I was intrigued because it had an engine turned buckle and was a slide closure, two things that weren’t represented in my belt wardrobe. I actually wear this quite a bit now, seeing that it’s the most sleek model out of my other “dress” belts. The smooth “Cortina” leather is in great condition and helps play with trousers and elevate jeans. It was a good gift from a friend!
Now as I said earlier, western belts are the best way to get inject some “fun” into your belt choice. At a certain point, as my casual style evolved to include some milsurp and workwear, and I knew my belts needed to gain some edge accordingly. I had occasionally perused eBay (and flea markets) for vintage western belts and had typically come up empty handed. That is, until I found one that was listed at only $25.
This belt is quite a beauty. While not as narrow as the other belts I was used to and considerably lighter in shade, the amount of detailing made up for it. Every metal piece, from the buckle and tip to the decorations on the body feature beautiful Native American eagle designs (the listing says they’re Navajo). I have no idea who the maker is, but the metal tip displays 1993s clearly, so I at least know it’s relative age!
It’s quite thick, but I’ve enjoyed wearing it across quite a few casual outfits. I’ve found that doesn’t work for trousers, especially since I’m scared that the adornments will tear through the belt loops or even the cloth. However, that just makes it work best for jeans, which I’ve always struggled with finding the right belt for that wasn’t too dressy. This was it, but I wasn’t over yet.
Getting the western belt finally got me to try a new type of closure (the big, elongated-yet-rounded buckle) but it was still regular grain leather- I knew I was ready to try some croc/alligator and expand my horizons! So my next belt, purchased before quarantine at the Rose Bowl flea market, was a dated 1992s Polo RL alligator belt!
The width is a bit wider than I’d normally like (1.25″) and scales are a bit “stacked”, but I knew this one would be a “cleaner” alternate to the western belt for casual wear. It helps that this one has a bit of a western vibe in that it has a metal tip. The most striking part for me is that it is a lighter shade (an orange-ish brown) when compared to my other belts. It’s not bad (as I obviously bought it regardless), but it does make it a bit tough to wear with my “formal” shoes, given my preference for deep, Color 8/burgundy leather.
Overall, this belt was a fantastic find and it’s been worn with a few outfits, but as I realized, I still wanted a different belt, perhaps closer to the ones worn by Sid Mashburn, Brycelands, and all of those mid century photographs.
As always, eBay came through like a homie and I found a “genuine Florida alligator (appears cowhide lined)” belt for about $40 shipped. The 1″ width was spot on and the scales were right what I wanted; it wasn’t as stacked as the western RL one.
Out of all the other belts, this one was the toughest to wear and was actually quite snug! Since it was a quarantine purchase, I haven’t worn it much at all outside of a handful of outfits, but it has stretched slightly to wear more comfortably. Now I wear it to provide a bit of a retro-edge to my ivy outfits, since it’s a good middle ground between the adorned western belt and my slick dress belts.
I don’t mind the western buckle (it’s even more “edgy” than the Native American one), but I do wish I could swap it out for an sleek deco engine turned piece. I actually tried it with the Trafalgar-RL buckle, but that buckle can’t fit the metal tip through. Alas, the hunt keeps going (as it tends to do with menswear), but I’m pretty happy where I am now!
If you’re wondering about black belts, don’t worry; it’s an intentionally small section because I haven’t been too lucky with finding good ones, at least to the same ability as the brown ones. It really is a shame considering the fact that I now have good black footwear, from my chelsea boots to my black tassels. I’m not about to wear a brown belt with black shoes!
With that being said, I have only two black belts, both vintage from the 1940s-1950s. My main one is about an inch wide and features a silver buckle. It’s actually quite nice if not for the fact it’s in worse condition than my 40’s brown one and could start flaking at any given moment.
The other is a very thin belt with an equally small gold buckle- if you look closely, you can see that there is a subtle deco “print”(?) on the leather. This very 50’s belt is in deadstock condition and has actually held up quite well with each wear. It may not work for every outfit, especially not casual ones, but it’s nice to bring a slick, louche (but not 70s gaudy) look to a tailored outfit.
If my search for brown belts is pretty much over, I’m definitely still looking to improve my black belt selection.
It’s honestly a little bit funny for me to be writing this, because I distinctly remember quite early on telling my friends that I’d never wear a belt again; I literally went through the trouble of adding suspender buttons to all my pants. Who would’ve known that I would come to a point where I’d never wear suspenders outside of black tie? Maybe it has something to do with my long, anxiety-inducing style journey.
In any case, I’ve come to thoroughly enjoy belts, going from only owning one to experimenting and adding a few to my arsenal. A lot of it has to do with deep introspection and becoming cognizant of details that could be altered to make a new vibe; hopefully you’ve come to realize that belts play a role in that. I just counted myself lucky that I found a great one rather early on in my style journey, but I knew it wouldn’t last forever and that I’d eventually have to get a new one.
Looking at some of my old inspiration pictures, it was clear that the one thing I never took from them were belts! The way they play with shoes and interact with loops and pleats was such an eye opener, which lead me to figure out what I wanted from a belt. Obviously, my background made me prioritize thin belts, but that still left room for a lot of experimentation. As you read in the article, I was intrigued heavily by deco style engine turned buckles, western paraphernalia, and croc/alligator skin. All of these details play into my vintage-inspired style and I’m glad I’ve been able to acquire some of them!
Overall, my biggest piece of advice (you can call it a thesis if you want) is that you should definitely explore different belts. I think most guys get caught up with getting a plain one and utilizing it across every outfit, which isn’t bad (it is practical, after all) but isn’t conducive if you want to create different looks. The idea, which is a common theme throughout the blog and podcast, is that you shouldn’t just default with any of your menswear choices. Each piece should be intentional, and that includes the belt!
As I’ve stated, a belt can either play with or subvert different aesthetics and you should definitely explore and experiment to your advantage! Just like with shoes, sportcoats, shirts, and ties, having variety (and taste) in your belts is key to having mastery and control over your wardrobe.
Always a pleasure,