Keep Your Pants On!
By Patrick F. Cannon
If you’re as fascinated by history as I am, you will have no doubt been puzzled by the undoubted fact that belts appear to have existed before pants were invented in the 15th Century by the Chevalier de Pantaloon. I have therefore taken it upon myself to remedy this shameful lapse in the historical record.
First of all, it would be well to define just what is meant by the word belt. As with so many English words, multiple meanings are available. As you know, one can belt out a song, or belt a fellow in the snout, or even belt a home run into the bleachers at Wrigley Field. These uses do not interest us. What we are after is a length of some material long enough to span ones waist.
Astonishingly, little was available in the historical record until Cicero, in his famous Commentaries Upon the Domestic Habits of the Noblest Romans, mentioned in what should have been a more noticed aside, that aristocratic Romans had taken to putting golden cords around their waists on windy days to prevent their skirts from flying up and exposing their less noble parts. You see, underwear had yet to be invented.
Well, as you may have already guessed, what started as necessity soon became fashion. When Plebeians began emulating their betters, the Roman Senate passed a law specifying from which materials these cords could be made. Only Senators were permitted to don golden cords, while the Plebs had to make due with hemp. The ladies, for obvious reasons, were forbidden to cinch their skirts.
As usual, there’s a dark side to the story. It seems to have occurred to a few aristocrats that the cord could be adapted to hold a knife. Thus, on those fateful Ides of March, Brutus, Cassius and their pals had their knives ready to hand when Julius Caesar unwittingly paused to greet his soon to be former friends.
It is to the Romans that we also owe the transition of the waist cord into what we now call a belt. It seems that the first Roman to spot the trend and cash in by making and selling ever more elaborate cords was the canny tailor, Flavius Beltus. As happened later with products like Kodak and Xerox, the company name became synonymous with the product, and so the waist cord became the belt.
Taking a leaf from Brutus and his crowd, the Roman Legions decided that the new belt could be adapted to hold any number of weapons in addition to knives. Hanging from their sturdy belts were not only knives, but swords, axes, maces, finger snips, eye gougers and even a flagon of Chiantus. The barbarians initially had no answer to this, but soon were emulating the Romans with weapons belts of their own, except their flagons contained Burgandus or Rhinelandus.
Belts changed little over the centuries. But when the Dark Ages subsided, newly wealthy nobles and merchants began to adorn their belts with rare fabrics and jewels. Women, for the first time, were permitted to belt themselves. They soon abandoned its practical uses, and the belt became purely a fashion statement, which it has remained to this day.
(I see I’ve neglected to mention the infamous chastity belt, designed to prevent wives from straying when hubby was away at the Crusades. I have often wondered how the poor women were able to go to the bathroom if the key was in far off Jerusalem, but decided there were some things one is better off not knowing.)
One suspects that belts were common during the Renaissance, but men’s waists were typically covered by short jackets, so visual evidence is lacking. It was only when the cutaway coat became fashionable in the 17th Century that the belt reappears in all its glory. As a man, I’m rather ashamed to say that the men of the period wore even fancier clothes than the women. In addition to belts, paintings by Van Dyke and others even show that the upper classes took to wearing garters. A Knighthood of the Garter was even created, still bestowed by the British monarch. Strangely, Winston Churchill refused a peerage, but did become a Knight of the Garter. When I saw a photograph of Sir Winston with his Garter regalia, I couldn’t help asking myself if he’d taken leave of his senses.
As to the present, I’ll leave it up to you to observe the current state of this once practical accessory. You’ll find that some people even persist in using one to hold up their pants.
Copyright 2017, 2021, Patrick F. Cannon