Keeping your pants on

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Imagine a world where there are pants but no belts or suspenders. On second thought, don't.

Schooled in suspension

Today, suspenders may be out of style, but they were originally invented by the world's most fashionable folk -- the French. Around the time of their revolution, Frenchies were sporting strips of ribbon buttoned to their britches. (Predictably, they had a lovely name for them: "bretelles.")

Across the pond, Ben Franklin had also adopted the style, and had required members of the country's first volunteer fire department to do likewise. Although worn by tough guys, these suspenders were quite fancy, usually made of silk or satin and embroidered with effeminate designs, such as hearts. These early fashions also had a back that looked like an H; it wasn't until 1850 that the standard Y-back came into style.

Suspenders rode high (as did waistlines) until 1893, when a stifling hot summer hit France. Suddenly, all that silk and satin began to chafe. A new pants-holding device was required, one that didn't constrict anywhere except where it was supposed to. Lo, there was the belt.

The belt had actually existed since the Bronze Age, but it had been more of a decorative item until the turn of the century. Now, it was finally being put to good use. As waistlines started to drop a couple decades later (to the devastation of little old men everywhere), the belt became entrenched, and the French have yet to invent something else with which to replace it.

Black belts

Sure, black is the color of cool, but that's not why the highest rank in martial arts is associated with that shade of belt. Instead, the reason is simple thriftiness. Japanese Judo introduced the colored-belt ranking system shortly after World War II, and karate schools picked it up soon after.

The students started out with white belts and progressed through six more stages: yellow, orange, green, blue, brown and finally black. Note that the colors get progressively darker. That's because it was cheaper to dye the same belt again and again as students advanced than to replace it.

There's an alternate explanation for the colors, although it's probably just a myth: that the belts progressed through the stages naturally as they got dirtier and dirtier. If this really was the case, though, we'd think that the stages would be more like "dingy, soiled, grungy, gross, disgusting and toxic to small animals."

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