Not all men are married to the idea of wearing braces to support their trousers, but an increasingly large number are now getting hitched.
Braces have always been an on and off affair – Steve McQueen as Thomas Crown (1968)
Braces (not those designed to straighten teeth), referred to in the United States as suspenders (not those designed to hold up ladies stockings) have existed in one form or another since the birth of trousers or pants (not those designed to be worn with ladies stockings and suspenders).
As difficult as the language may be to understand, men have known, for hundreds of years, that they can run much faster if they prevent the crotch of their trousers from falling below their knees. Braces have always performed brilliantly in avoiding such catastrophe, and only those who are particularly safety conscious need worry about further measure – hence the expression “belt and braces”.
Safety first – John Wayne was unlikely to be caught with his trousers down
The creation of the modern trouser, as we know it today, is attributed to the collaborative work in the early 1800s of Regency dandy Beau Brummell and his tailor, Jonathan Meyer, at his Conduit Street workshop in the London district of Mayfair.
Brummell’s design incorporated a foot-strap to keep the trouser-legs taut and straight – a feature that still exists on the bottom half of British Guards and Cavalry dress uniforms.
Beau Brummell steps out in style
In order to create the stretched, lithe look of Brummell’s trouser legs, the straps securing the hems needed to be countered by suitable supports at the waist. In 1820, Albert Thurston invented the perfect product to pair with the new pants. He used leather loops to attach braces to buttons that were sewn onto trouser waistbands. The braces could then be easily transferred for use from one pair of trousers to another.
Supporting trousers with braces was elementary in the 19th Century
Whilst the leather loops remain a feature of the majority of Albert Thurston models produced to this day, the configuration of the brace-straps has changed over time. The early designs incorporated the “H-Back” attachment, as they resembled an uppercase H when fastened to the back of a trouser. This was later replaced by the X-back, and finally the traditional Y-Back. I like to wear mine with a V-neck T-shirt (sorry – couldn’t resist).
Albert Thurston Y-back braces from their 1870 catalogue
Throughout their lifetime, braces have dipped in and out of fashion, staging more comebacks than Frank Sinatra (who regularly wore them). In the nineteenth century they were classified as “underwear” and it was considered risqué to expose them to public gaze (very much like ladies stocking-suspenders today).
Even in the early twentieth century it could be seen as distasteful or impolite to wear braces if they were not covered by a vest or some other piece of clothing – exposing them was against the law on Long Island as recently as 1938.
Braces have made more comebacks than Frank Sinatra
During the early 1940s, the fashion for wearing over-sized Zoot Suits meant that suspenders had to be worn to keep the waistband of the pants at the desired height (somewhere around the lower ribcage), but the outbreak of World War II saw the extravagant use of cloth curtailed, and the trend was cut short.
The high-rise trousers of Zoot Suits required the support of braces
At the same time, a great number of military servicemen began wearing belts to support the trousers of their uniforms – a habit which continued when they were demobbed. This spelt danger for the suspender industry. Braces had gone from not being seen, to not being worn.
Zoot Suits and braces were replaced by uniforms and belts during World War II
In the 1950s, Hollywood produced a new breed of movie star, and screen idols Marlon Brando and James Dean helped to create a monster – the rebellious teenager. The new icons of men’s style didn’t wear suspenders – they didn’t wear pants – they wore denim jeans – with belt loops! A whole generation of young men had a fresh vision of glamour… and there wasn’t a pair of braces in sight.
The Wild One (1953) – Marlon Brando has no need for belt or braces
A decade later, there was a glimmer of hope. Two new action heroes appeared in television and cinema. They were British, they drove sports cars rather than motorbikes, and they didn’t wear denim. When they made their screen debuts in October 1962, Roger Moore (as the Saint) and Sean Connery (as James Bond) were impeccably tailored in bespoke finery produced by Cyril Castle and Anthony Sinclair respectively.
Both tailors had premises on Conduit Street – close to the location where Brummell and Meyer had created their first trousers. However, Castle and Sinclair didn’t favour braces – or belts – they didn’t have a foot (or leg) in either camp, preferring to incorporate the elastic, self-supporting, tab and button mechanism known as DAKS tops.
Sean Connery as James Bond (1962) – braces may have clashed with his shoulder holster
By the mid-sixties it had become fashionable again for young people to dress up, rather than down. The Mod movement had created a renaissance in tailoring, but the style was influenced by sleek Italian design, and sadly, braces didn’t sit comfortably with the look. It is with some irony that, in 1969, when all seemed doomed for the business of braces, salvation arrived in the most unlikely form of the “rebellious teenager” and another British youth subculture – Skinheads.
Braces were an essential part of the Skinhead’s outfit, worn on prominent display – possibly as a bold, anarchic statement, breaking down the final vestige of conservative thinking of braces as underwear. In something akin to Superman wearing his briefs on the outside of his trousers, Skinhead style had a fearless air and created fearful looks.
Skinheads lead the march with a braces revival
Some gangs would wear specific colours to signify a certain allegiance, but they all wore them narrow, no more than an inch in width, and they were attached with clips (rather than buttons) to the tops of denim jeans (not trousers). Braces held the skinhead’s jeans high above their “bovver-boots”, creating the impression that they were ready for a fight, whilst providing the security they would need (as previously referred to) should they wish to run away from one.
The 1970s saw a shift in the focus of popular culture, from the streets to the dance floor, but no matter how energetically hips were gyrated at the discotheque, the tight-fitting tops of flared trousers needed little support. In any case, the practical, dependable, masculine style of braces would be at odds with satin shirts unbuttoned to the waist.
John Travolta as Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever (1977)
The Alpha-Male returned to society in the 1980s, and the new masters of the universe occupied an aggressive, ruthless environment – Wall Street. The centre of global finance was used as the title for Oliver Stone’s archetypal film portrayal of eighties excess. It starred Michael Douglas, who won an Academy Award for Best Actor. He was also remembered for a prominent part of his wardrobe – his braces. Bankers around the world emulated the look, and suspender suppliers breathed a sigh of relief.
Michael Douglas – braced for business in Wall Street (1987)
Whilst associates of the financial establishment helped to restore the fortunes of the braces industry, members of another institution influenced further sartorial rebellion. The practice of “sagging” (where waistbands are allowed to drop below the hips) is believed to have been inspired in the 1990s by prison inmates who were not allowed to wear belts with their loose fitting overalls, through fear that they may be used to help in a fight, attempted suicide, or a run for it (maybe)?
The act of publicly displaying one’s braces, considered brash since Regency times, now paled into insignificance compared to the brazen display of boxer shorts and briefs. Dropping their trousers in the face of authority, young men were no longer making bold statements with Y-Back brace-straps – they were using their Y-Fronts.
Mark Wahlberg and Kate Moss “sagging”
In 2007 the Town Council of Delcambre, Louisiana, passed an indecent exposure ordinance, which prohibited the intentional wearing of trousers in such a way as to show underwear. This act of oppression only went to enhance the appeal of sagging pants. Meanwhile, back in Wall Street, the Financial Crisis was taking hold and bankers were burning their braces to avoid association with “Greed is Good” stereotypes. Albert Thurston and their contemporaries needed a new hero to rescue the situation.
Cue 007. A phenomenon that had experienced it’s own mixed fortunes over the years. Just like the braces business, the James Bond franchise needed new life, and they both found it in Daniel Craig. Bond was back. A born military man, as comfortable in polite society as Brummell, he could mix it with motorcycle gangs and scrap with skinheads, survive in a cell full of prison bums and tame any of the wolves on Wall Street. When it came to bankrupting a terrorist financier in a high-stakes poker game, he did so in the coolest manner – wearing a pair of Albert Thurston braces.
Daniel Craig – reviving Bond AND Braces
This is unlikely to be the final chapter in the story of suspense, but for the time being, braces are starting to ride high again. Thurston’s finest made further appearances in the recent Bond movies “Skyfall” and “Spectre”. They were sitting on the shoulders of British actor Ralph Fiennes playing the part of Gareth Mallory, a character who had assumed the position of “M”. Hmm… “M-shaped” braces – now there’s an idea!