shkrobius (shkrobius) wrote,

On belts, pants and logic

Comments to the previous post informed me that it was illogical of Paleolithic men to walk on freezing ground without shoes.

I can't agree more, but logic is not the strongest point of our species. Consider the simplest thing: a belt in the trousers. Incidentally, belt is the second accessory for which there is a special morning blessing, so the two articles are closely related.

Our past is distinguished with monumental achievements. The Renaissance produced incomparable art, Kepler discovered elliptic orbits, Newton explained them, there was the Age of Reason, then the Age of Progress, geniuses created grand theories and masterpieces, and yet no one figured out tying their trousers with belts. The belts have been worn for many millennia. So have been the trousers. In all of these millennia no one did the logical thing of tying trousers with belts.

...Belts have been documented for male clothing since the Bronze Age. Both genders used them off and on, depending on the current fashion. In the period of the latter-half of the 19th century and up until the first World War, the belt was a decorative as well as utilitarian part of the uniform, particularly among officers. In the armed forces of Prussia, Tsarist Russia, and other Eastern European nations, it was common for officers to wear extremely tight, wide belts around the waist, on the outside of the uniform, both to support a saber as well as for aesthetic reasons. These tightly cinched belts served to draw in the waist and give the wearer a trim physique, emphasizing wide shoulders and a pouting chest. Often the belt served only to emphasize waist made small by a corset worn under the uniform, a practice which was common especially during the Crimean Wars. In modern times, men started wearing belts in the 1920s, as trouser waists fell to a lower line. Before the 1920s, belts served mostly a decorative purpose, and were associated with the military. Today it is common for men to wear a belt with their trousers. (Wiki)

Logic or no logic, the fact remains that it was easier to develop special and general relativity than to imagine trousers secured with leather belts inserted into belt loops. That does not, however, mean that pre-20th century pants have been dropping off. Trousers were highly cut and waist-fitted to the contours of their wearers, as such tailoring adjustments cost pennies. Then, in the 1820s suspenders have been invented. From then onwards, even mass manufactured trousers could be worn without individual fitting (though tailors’ services still cost pennies).

These trousers were cut very high, which made belts impractical. No one made pants with loops or used belts to tie their trousers. Pants with belt loops could have been made in prehistoric times. Yet they were not. The 19th century cowboys could have displayed those huge brass buckles on their wide leather belts that one sees in the Hollywood movies. They did not. These movies are as faithful to history as the ones showing pre-historic men in hippie outfits and leather boots. Still "everyone knows that cowboys wore humongous brass buckles on their belts." There is a whole industry of authentic cowboy belts and buckles. Wearing such accessories seems to be a logical thing for a cowboy to do. The real cowboys did not know about that and wore suspenders.

So why do we do the logical thing?

The change in trousers was fostered by two developments. One was the WWI. Mass production of uniforms for nationally conscripted armies in the time of war shortages forced national governments to trim as much material as possible. The trousers were made with such a low cut that suspenders became loose, and they needed to tie these funny trousers with a wide belt that was worn over the coat. Men discharged from the army got used to this silly fashion. Because the belts did not sit well on trousers, belt loops were introduced in the early 1920s. The second development was the demise of waistcoat that was hiding suspenders. They became visible, which was unacceptable (see below).

The reason the governments needed to economize even on the cheapest materials (hence the disgusting military uniforms of the 20th century) is that millions of ordinary people were drafted into the armies, where they perished by millions in the machine-gun crossfire, displaying their gut on the barbed wire. This, of course, is the heritance of the glorious French Revolution with its achievement of citizens at arms: the nation-states engaged into the war of mutual annihilation in the name of the higher goals. The war became total, and patriotic citizenry in belted uniforms provided the fodder for cannons. In this sense, the belted trousers were inevitable. They are the very essence of modernity, crowning 300 years of advanced political thought.

Not so the waistcoat. It was introduced by King Charles II as the court dress during the Restoration. The king was impressed by the vest worn by a Persian Ambassador, and he decided to respond to this Oriental challenge. From his court the waistcoat fashion spread to the aristocratic circles of Europe. After a 100+ years of wearing, the waistcoat was well on the way out, but then the fate interfered. During the French Revolution the liberated masses demanded the privilege of aristocratic waistcoats, and so these good-for-nothing Persian imports became democratic. In the early 1820s, as slim waist and corsets became fashionable among the military, the officers started to mask their corsets and the suspenders with these back-to-fashion waistcoats, for lack of a better idea. As the officers were the model of manhood, civilians re-adopted them, too. When these brave, slim-waist officers perished in the bloodbath of the WWI, their waistcoats became to be seen as the integral part of the folly of the ruling classes, and so they went into steady decline. By WWII, when another wave of war-related shortages hit the civilized world, the waistcoats almost completely disappeared.

OK, but why would suspenders be verboten without the waistcoats? Because suspenders were considered to be undergarments to be hidden from the view, like women's garter belts. As late as 1938 there were places in the US legally forbidding the display of suspenders in public as indecent exposure. The historical reason for that is that the suspenders were closely associated with the corsets worn by men, which is, to call it plainly, an exercise in body engineering.

I’d say that starting the day by buckling belts in our trousers is neither logical nor is it entirely illogical. It is what we do; it reminds us what kind of beings we are.

The great political thought of our wisest men created the unusual conditions, in which alone "the logical thing" became marginally logical. In less enlightened times, no such thing would be necessary. The cost of this logical thing was measured in two world wars and millions of human lives. The inhuman logic of the nation state met a very human concern about looking one’s best, that drove some men to body engineering, which created an association between suspenders and undergarments; that was their undoing a century later. The folly of these men was not greater than the folly of any other men, but the belated revenge against them combined with the queer cultural traditions initiated by these same men gave us our belted trousers.

Blessed be the one who girds Israel with strength.

We need this strength to survive yet another such "logical thing." There have been too many of them lately...

Tags: blessings
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