We take things for granted. Modern society does not pay attention to the thousands of years and millions of moments that go into creating ingenious commonplace objects, like a sturdy leather belt.
This is because of a common psychological factor — habituation, which is when an emotional, mental or physical stimulus is presented so often that our response to it is diminished. Putting on a belt often, if not every day, makes it a commonplace item. The history and significance of leather belts is background noise, like the sound of an air conditioning unit that eventually is no longer heard, but all the while present.
Leather belts are the product of thousands of years of development as part of a larger craft, leatherworking, that helped shape society, establish cultural identity, protect civilizations and advance technology.
Here’s a brief history of that thing holding your pants up right now.
The Early History of Leather Belts Through the Ages
Leather belts were used in the Bronze Age (3000 BC to 1050 BC). However, it took awhile for the leatherworking process to advance.
Softened tree bark and gathered cloth were prominent pieces of apparel wrapped around the waist.
There were pieces of leather with boiling rocks found in Norwegian Lower Paleolithic dwelling-sites, according to Studies in Ancient Technology Volume V. These are considered an early form of cuir bouilli, which was a method of molding leather by boiling it, with some saying that the ammonia from animal urine was used to treat it.
Syrian armed god figurines during the late Bronze Age depicted bearded nude warriors wearing eight-inch wide leather belts, according to Warfare in the Ancient Near East to 1600 BC: Holy Warriors at the Dawn of History.
The Illiad, which is set during the Trojan War between 1200-1100 BC, references three belts: the zoster (a girdle made of leather and decorated with precious stones), the aortēr (a weapon belt holding a sword, thrown over the chest) and the telamon (a common word used for any belt worn over the shoulder), according to Bronze Age Military Equipment. These were thick enough to protect the wearer from being impaled by arrows, according to the Epic Poem.
As leatherworking advanced, societies were able to utilize the textile for utilitarian purposes. They could carry weaponry and equipment.
Belt buckles and hooks were cast with bronze and later had an inner iron core, according to Ethnic Identity and Imperial Power: The Batavians in the Early Roman Empire.
Initially, leatherworking yielded stiff pieces of hide that rotted in the sun, but animal fats were later introduced for flexibility. Aldehyde, from burned leaves, was used to tan, and the putrefying hides were treated with a drying process in the sunlight. Alum from volcanic areas was used for tanning purposes, according to one report. Nowadays, there’s quite the selection for belt leather.
Cordovan leather production was developed in eighth-century Spain.
Middle Age leather Belts Varied by Trade and Social Standing
Leather belts and girdles in the Middle Ages were a popular form of jewelry, with intricate brooches that fastened them.
With time, girdles transitioned into belts worn straight around the hips over a cotehardie (a long, fitted gown) that men and women wore. These were thick and could support a sword and a scabbard, which was also often made of leather.
According to Clothing in the Middle Ages, craftspeople wore belts that had large bags of tools fixed to the belt — their everyday carry set up was a bit more intense than what we consider these days.
A houppelande was a long, sumptuous, heavy piece of clothing that could be worn over the cotehardie. For women, the belts rested at or above the natural waist when these were worn, which is above the hips. Men’s belts were lower on the waist.
In literature, the belt or girdle referenced medieval ideas of purity, symbolizing chastity and religious abstinence, according to a paper published from the University of Tennessee titled The Importance of the Belt in Religious and Secular Medieval Courtly Love Literature.
In funerals, corpses buried with applique belts is evidence that in funerary practices belts could signify social ranking, according to a paper titled Burials with belts. Rank insignia or dress accessories (12th–15th centuries A.D.)/ArhIn, I, Medieval Changing Landscape.
So, the leather belt was used for work utility, religious honor and jeweled nobility. Makes sense.
Belts for war are also a given. Swords and daggers hung sheathed from the beltline. Plated steel and strips of leather hung from the beltline. Bow sheaths, arrow quivers and larger two-handed weaponry also utilize leather belts over the shoulder.
The Golden Age of Piracy from the 1650s to the 1730s saw a prevalence in holstered pistols above and below the waistline with leather belts.
How Leather Belts Changed Pants and Culture in the 20th Century
Leather-belt wearing American cowboys are a cultural cornerstone in this country’s machismo mythos — not to mention the fact that cowgirls are an iconic representation of feminine strength.
Their impact on the leather belt was significant, marked by intricate belt buckles awarded through valorous acts on ranches and rodeos, and detailed branding on some (definitely not all).
The belt hung lower on the waist, featured holsters and some came ready to hold spare bullets for revolvers.
Note that belt loops were not prominent until 1922 when Levi Strauss added them to the jeans he introduced in the late 19th century. The suspender buttons were removed in 1937.
Does that mean belt loops couldn’t exist and don’t possibly exist before that date? Not necessarily. But they became a larger part of the zeitgeist during that time.
After belt loops were circulated within sportswear, they gained traction as part of civilians’ wardrobes. During World War I there were hate belts and souvenir belts, which had the buttons from fallen soldiers’ uniforms attached as a sign of conquest for German soldiers.
The Sam Browne belt featured a broad piece of leather bound around the waist with a smaller, secondary leather strap typically belted diagonally across the torso. Historically, the secondary strap steadied a scabbard on the waist, because the inventor Sam Browne, a British army officer, had lost his left hand and needed a means to keep the blade firmly in place on the waist.
It tended to move around and needed to be steadied by the non-dominant hand before drawn.
This belt was later used with heavy pistols. With time, officers in various countries adopted it as part of their uniform, but the United States discontinued its use around 1942 to save leather.
Fashion as a group identity has adopted the leather belt into various subcultures, styles and uses in postmodern society and into the new millennium.
Even the gun belt from Bigfoot Gun Belts has been adapted from historical ties into modern application with a steel-core belt for strength.
Curious about other leather topics? Here’s some curated content from the Bigfoot Gun Belts blog.
About The Author
Jake Smith (@notjakesmith) is a copywriter and photographer based in the Pacific Northwest who enjoys shooting pictures and ammunition outdoors.