A belt is a common and often necessary piece of fashion item nowadays. It could be made from leather, plastic, or different kinds of fabric. It could be bedazzled, spiky, thick, laced, braided, etc. Not only for fashion but belts are also used for their function, the main one being so that your pants don’t fall down. In the military, they are also essential not just for aesthetics but also for functional purposes like carrying tools and weapons. These belts usually come with buckles that are now used more than just to secure the belt in place.  The belt is probably older than the shoe when it comes to clothing for humans.

History of Belts and Buckles

The use of belts can be traced back to male clothing during the Bronze Age, with what appeared to be a bone belt hook found in Yanik Tepe in the northeast of Lake Urmia, Iran. As for the belt buckles, they were first used in China and Rome between 3300 and 1200 BCE. In the beginning, they were simple wrought-iron utensils that were made to hold clothing together made during the period when technological advancements started, and bones were replaced with bronze craft tools. This gave way to the making of advanced tools and weapons used for hunting and some other form of livelihood. Artistry in crafts also began, and many skilled workers started to incorporate decorative art in these tools, adding intricate elements and designs. Belts became a necessity for carrying weapons and tools conveniently.

The first belt buckles were made from softened tree bark covers until the material evolved from the traditional barks to bronze, added with some leather and other artificial components based on different cultural and geographical factors.

In The Military

In the military world, buckles first appeared sometime during the civil war era, which had a huge impact on their designs. The American Navajo silversmiths started to design turquoise buckles. At that time, the US Oval was the most common Civil War buckle, thus the most commonly used on the battlefield. The Union had the resources to die-stamp millions of the buckles while the Confederate soldiers in the South, their buckles were made not in foundries but handmade by people with little to no experience in metalworks.

A replica Confederate “CSA” Pewter Rectangle Buckle. (pbs.org)

In Britain, the first British rifleman’s belt with “Snake Buckle” appeared in the 1800s used by the elite rifle regiments in the Napoleonic War. As Action Archeology wrote in an article:

The 95th Rifles and the 60th Rifles, and the KGL (King’s German Legion) were some of the units that used this buckle. These units were “chosen men”, and wore a green uniform with black buttons and engaged in skirmishing and sniping the French. This “snake” pattern continued in use throughout the 19th century and is seen in popular use by Confederate Troops in American Civil War, as British military equipment was supplied to them through “running the blockade”. It was widely used by the North West Mounted Police who had adopted British/Canadian military kit of the day (Stetsons and red coats). It was also standard issue to Canadian Troops as part of the hated leather “Oliver Pattern” belt, harness, and cartridge box kit used until about 1914. Post-World War One it was used by various police services and cadet units till about the mid-20th century (1, 2, 3).

By the 20th century, cowboys began to popularize their signature Stetson hat with conspicuous clasps, and although they have been around before the 1900s with their suspenders and military buckles, it was in the 20th century that they took the stage of the western movies and popularized buckles featuring flags, thus inspiring the sense of patriotism throughout the US channeled in their belt buckles.

Imperial Prussian Army belt buckle, WW1. (Auckland MuseumCC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Used For Functionality

The belt buckles also removed the burden of carrying objects off the wearer’s shoulder, more than just showing patriotism. They also functioned as a military identification in ancient times as officers who were divided into general staff, cavalry, and infantry wore different buckles to show and identify which branch of service they were from. A tradition that carries over even to today, the Navy and Marine Corps also have different belt buckles for the officers and enlisted, complete with tradition and trivia.