The often taken for granted denim belt loops turned 100 this year.
Belt loops themselves are significantly older than their denim counterparts. They were introduced in the 19th century and used mostly on uniforms such as the sporting ones that can be seen on baseball players from the 1880s. By the turn of the century, they were on the breeches of the official U.S. army uniform issued in 1904. The Boy Scout Handbook 1911 First Edition says that the $2 trousers for scout masters had to be full length and “made of standard olive drab cotton cloth, belt loop.”
First appearing on a pair of Levi’s 501s in 1922, denim belt loops were an alternate to suspender buttons, an original feature of the jean, and reflected society’s growing fondness for belts over braces. The back cinch was also retained for those who wanted to wear suspenders. The cinch was finally removed permanently from the jeans in the 1940s when fabric was being rationed because of WWII.
While they’ve prevailed for a century, the denim belt loop has not radically evolved—though there have been variations over the years. “Belt loops on our 501 jeans haven’t changed much over the years, but belt loops on other Levi’s products have ranged from oversized loops on Red Levi’s to double loops and leather loops on Orange Tab jeans to slanted loops on SilverTab Levi’s that were attached on the waistband at an angle,” said Tracey Panek, Levi Strauss & Co. historian.
Though there are traditionally five loops on the waistband of a jean, Wrangler features seven on its Cowboy Cut model, first launched in 1947, for extra comfort when horseback riding. Other variations include DIY embroideries or loops made of vegetable tanned leather, like the limited-edition jean released by Italian brand Roy Roger in 2013.
“Belt loops oddly hold an importance to me in the design and function of the jean,” said Christine Rucci, president of Godmother NYC Inc. “I am a purist and love 7/16″ x 2-1/4″ to allow for 2-inch belt to pass through. I mainly work with 100-year-old Union Special machines at my local denim factory in the Garment District and they are set with the old-fashioned width.”
Rucci is also fond of loops’ potential decorative aspects by adding hardware such as chains and other “jewelry for your jeans” as she calls it. One of the most extreme examples of this were Earnest Sewn’s collaboration with Van Cleef & Arpels released in 2008. The jeans had a gold Alhambra-style chain from the front right belt loop which attached to a wallet in the back pocket. The jeans retailed for $9,700-$11,300.
The presence of belt loops generally means an accompanying belt and brands including Levi’s and Wrangler among others have a history of awarding large belt buckles to rodeo stars. They also do big business making and selling belts of their own. Belts are the largest business in Levi’s accessories division. The brand said it produces more than 2.5 million belts annually.
That’s a lot of loops to go through.
This article appears in Rivet’s winter issue. Click here to download the magazine.