Now & Then: The History of the Belt

Drawing attention to our waists, wearing a belt is a simple way to pull together a figure-flattering outfit.

It’s a little accessory that can make a major impact. The belt was seen widely on spring’s waist-focused runways, most memorably at Alexander McQueen and Burberry Prorsom. Doing wonders for most women, a seemingly pedestrian belt has the power to creates curves where there might not have been before and add polish to even the most casual of outfit. While last year’s belt of choice was the skinny, the waist-cinching wide corset-styles were unquestionably this season’s pick to pull together a look and add a pop of color to an outfit.

Burberry’s s/s 2012 pleated green midi dress with standout beaded woven belt

The need to hold one’s pants up has made belts indispensable for men since the 16th century. Military girdles – bands worn around the waist to hold weapons in place – are considered the first belts documented in clothing history. By the 1850s, the concept had infiltrated women’s styles when dresses were adorned with sashes made in matching fabrics. By the 1920s the lowered waists of the flapper fashions meant belts were dropped too, but by the time women embraced pants in the 1930s, women’s belts were back.

Yves Saint Laurent and his muse Betty Catroux, both wearing low slung belts with their safari styles

Whether it’s a cowboy, gaucho, obi, ribbon or belly chain, certain kinds of belts can instantly signify a time and place in fashion history: prim and proper, the skinny belt secured the ladylike shirtwaists of the 50s housewife; the low slung hip belt accentuated Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic safari jackets in 1968 and chain belts gave the appropriate amount of bohemian swagger to the disco divas of Studio 54.

70’s Style icon, Ali Macgraw wearing a popular chain belt

Some women take an accessory and make it all their own. Inspired by her favorite J Crew styling, Michelle Obama has been known for wearing various widths of belts over shift dresses, cardigans and even coats. And while it seems impossible to imagine, some belts have the ability to reveal everything. Just ask Sarah Burton, creative director of Alexander McQueen. As the designer rumored to be designing Kate Middleton’s top-secret royal wedding dress last year, she was identified at the last minute as she arrived at the Goring Hotel by her distinctive studded leather belt doubled through the belt loops of her cropped pants.

Michelle Obama sported a wide plastic belt by designer Sonia Rykiel for her Oprah cover

Now & Then: The History of Nail Polish

Now & Then: The History of the Fashion Corset

Now & Then: The History of Lace

Now & Then: The History of the Platform Shoe

Now & Then: The History of Fitness Wear

Now & Then: The History of the Paisley Print

Now & Then: The History of the Pencil Skirt

Now & Then: The History of the Cocktail Dress

Now & Then: The History of the Trench Coat

Now & Then: The History of the Bold Brow

Now & Then: The History of the Cuff

Now & Then: The History of Turtlenecks

Now & Then: The History of Tights

Now & Then: The History of Skinny Jeans

Now & Then: The History of the Chevron Stripe

Now & Then: The History of Penny Loafers

Now & Then: The History of Go-Go Boots

Now & Then: The History of the Poet Blouse


Rowena Ritchie

Rowena is EcoSalon’s West Coast Fashion Editor and currently resides in San Francisco, CA.