What are suspenders?
Suspenders – also known as braces – are how men used to keep our pants up. This timeless piece of men’s fashion dates back at least as far as the 18th century when rudimentary suspenders in the form of ribbons were used to hold up French pantalon. In the 1820s, faced with a fashion for high-waisted trousers, British designer Albert Thurston created something much more like the suspenders we would recognize today.
Modern suspenders attach to your pants with either clips or buttons (more on this distinction below!), and cross your back in an ‘X’ or ‘Y’ shape for added support and stability. (You may also have seen H-shaped suspenders, but these tend to be built into overalls or similar uniform.) They also come in a variety of widths, from a fashionable half-inch to a more sturdy 2 inches for heavy-duty workwear.
Around the time of World War 1, lower-sitting pants became more popular and brought with them a preference for belts. But while no longer a mainstream trend, suspenders have maintained a place in fashion throughout the decades: paired with skinny jeans in the 1960s by British mods (and successive subcultures); sported by women in the 1970s and 80s for a unisex look. And today they’re enjoying a resurgence, thanks to stylish, detail-oriented dressers who love suspenders for their unparalleled combination of comfort and class.
How to rock the look
First, the very basics: to put on suspenders, first attach them to your pants, at least on the back. Then you can either attach them to the front as well before stepping into your pants; or slip the pants on, pull the suspenders over your shoulders and attach at the front. Adjust for a good fit: you’ll know right away if you’ve pulled them too tight.
Many fashion writers will tell you that suspenders are non-negotiable when you’re wearing formal attire; but can you wear them with anything else?
Good news: you can, and you should! Whether you wear them with a bow tie for a quirky evocation of a bygone fashion era, pair your suspenders with a straight tie to add an edge to a sharp modern outfit, or simply try something new suspenders will complement your look. From a white-tie suit to jeans and boots, you can wear them with just about anything. But there are a few guidelines you should bear in mind to help you look your best.
Number one: under no circumstances should you wear a belt with your suspenders. There’s even a whole metaphor about it – taking a ‘belt and suspenders’ approach means being over-cautious, even redundant. Neither of these are how you want to look! Besides which, you’ll create a weird-looking square in the middle of your outfit, and you risk looking like Bill Lumbergh from Office Space. It’s a fashion faux pas for a reason.
Next, consider the fabric of your suspenders. It should either match the fabric of the rest of your outfit or contrast with it in an eye-catching way: no clashes. If your suspenders are leather, match them to your shoes instead.
Finally, there are a number of hotly debated points of style when it comes to suspenders: read on for some points of view, and choose wisely!
The difficult decisions
Hide or show?
Historically, suspenders were seen as a form of underwear, a little like garter belts are now: something slightly risqué and best kept under wraps. In fact, in the 1930s a Long Island town briefly banned men from wearing suspenders without a coat to cover them up – but this was overturned when the (presumably overheated) men complained.
These days we’re naturally more easy-going when it comes to rules about what can and can’t be flaunted. You might think that – having gone to the effort of choosing a smart pair of suspenders – it would be a shame not to show them off. But if you really want to commit to an elegant, old-school look, you might consider restricting glimpses of your suspenders to the occasional sighting beneath your jacket.
Clips or buttons?
Even more contentious than the question of whether to show off your suspenders is the controversial issue of how to attach them to your pants. Suspender purists (yes, they exist) will tell you that only suspenders with button-hole tabs are permissible, while other sartorial experts feel that clip-on suspenders have their place.
To help you decide what’s best for you and your wardrobe, we’ve presented below the arguments for each method. But first let’s take a look at one of the biggest sticking-points in this thorny debate: are buttoned suspenders the more traditional choice?
Metal clasps for attaching suspenders to pants were invented in 1894. That’s right – during every period of fashion history you associate with suspenders (unless you’re thinking solely of the 18th-century ribbon-slung French pantalon), clip-ons were both widely available and popular. So if you’re looking for a reason to eschew clips in favor of buttons, “buttons are more traditional” just won’t hold up.
The case for buttons
Leaving tradition aside, there are a number of reasons for choosing buttons over clips. The simplest and best of these is that buttons give your outfit a more clean and refined look, particularly if you’re wearing your suspenders with a suit. But there’s more:
Clips can damage your pants
Whether the fastenings on your suspenders are secured with pin-clips or alligator clasps, they will bite sharply into the fabric of your waistband and can damage the material: immediately in the case of pin-clips, and over time in the case of alligator clasps.
Buttons are more distinctive
Suspenders are widely available, and ‘fast fashion’ suspenders – likely to be less expensive and made from a lower-grade fabric – are almost certain to be clip-ons. It may sound snobby, but choosing buttons will help you stand out from the crowd. And once you’ve committed to pants with buttons at the waist, the range of suspenders available to you will be of far superior quality.
Buttons demonstrate the care and attention you’ve put into your outfit
Many fashion writers compare the suspender issue to that of the bow tie: if you’re going to wear a clip-on, you might as well not have bothered. Whereas going to the additional expense and minor hassle of buying a proper bow tie and learning how to tie it – or, in this case, having buttons added to the waistband of your pants, selecting suspenders with button tabs, and then buttoning them up – shows that you care a great deal about what you wear, right down to the tiniest, button-sized feature. And for many men who care about fashion, that attention to detail is the very definition of style.
The case for clip-ons
Let’s get back to basics here: suspenders, like belts, exist primarily to stop your pants falling down. If you’re wearing them chiefly for that reason, rather than as a fashion accessory, then there’s nothing in the world to stop you securing them with clips. And there are any number of functional reasons a man might choose suspenders over belts. They might be more comfortable, depending on his shape and his work environment. They might be his only option if he also has to wear a tool or utility belt of some sort, or put on additional trousers over a belted pair for work or sport. He might find suspenders more flattering than a belt, but be otherwise uninterested in achieving a particular look. In any of these cases, it makes sense to own clip-on suspenders rather than investing in the button-tab kind.
Maybe you like to mix up your style, and won’t be wearing suspenders every day; or maybe you’re just experimenting with suspenders, for now, to find out if they’re for you. In either case, trying out the more versatile clip-on suspenders is a good idea. Whether you then choose to commit fully to suspenders by having buttons sewn into the waistband of your pants is up to you!
You might not be able to see them anyway
Suspenders are meant to be hidden away, remember? Particularly if you’re wearing a tux with a cummerbund, the cummerbund will cover the tabs of your suspenders, so no-one will know whether you’re wearing clip-ons or not.
Clip-ons are the look you’re going for
Let’s not be too prescriptive here: it’s your look, so you can make the rules. If fun and tacky is what you’re going for; or if you’re embracing a dorky Urkel vibe; or even if you’re really committing to a vintage look by wearing suspenders the way most men in the 40s actually would have done: then clip-ons might work better for you. When it comes to style the most important thing is to dress deliberately – so as long as you know what you’re doing, you can do what you want.
What about belt loops?
Now that we’ve put that controversy to rest, here’s another: is it OK to wear suspenders with trousers that have belt loops?
Again, some purists will tell you that if we can see unused belt-loops at your waist, then you’re not showing true commitment to the suspender aesthetic. And it’s true that going loopless does give you a cleaner, more elegant look.
However, when you put your pants on in the morning, sometimes you like to have a choice about how you keep them up. Particularly if you’ve invested a lot of money in a made-to-measure suit, you might prefer to keep your options open by equipping your suit trousers with both loops for belt days, and buttons for those days when only suspenders will do.
Whether your suspenders are buttoned or clipped; with loops or none; coyly covered-up or boldly flaunted; whether the look you’re going for is more Gatsby or Wall Street – suspenders have your back. Ditch the belt and give them a try today.