The hipsters were the first to pull them out of their grandfathers’ drawers, but today suspenders are popular with people with a wide variety of styles. Knowing them better is interesting and also useful, because the choice of the most suitable suspenders also depends on the type of clothing, one’s build and the occasion in which they must be worn.
Part of the male wardrobe for three centuries
In the beginning “les bretelles” were the symbolic garment of the French Revolution. They were invented by the sans culottes, who wore sailor pants held up by suspenders to distinguish themselves from nobles in their silk breeches (culottes, that is).
The first to sell modern suspenders was the Londoner Albert Thurston. Today the brand that bears his name is synonymous with quality craftmanship: suffice it to say that Daniel Craig in the role – made to measure – of the secret agent James Bond wears a pair of white Albert Thurston suspenders in one of the most important scenes of Casinò Royale.
In 1871 Samuel Clemens sought and obtained a patent for “adjustable and detachable straps for garments”. In that period suspenders came in a single size with elastic material, but Clemens found them uncomfortable, so he made them with straps, like belts. But it wasn’t for this reason that Clemens went down in history: he did that for what he wrote and signed with the pseudonym of Mark Twain. His famous characters Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, however, are always represented with suspenders.
Suspenders reached their apogee between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth: trousers of the period had an extremely high cut that made the use of a belt impossible. The two world wars instead relegated suspenders to the closet.
After World War II, suspenders were worn by some specific groups, like for example the English working class in the Sixties: it was with that model in mind that Stanley Kubrick had Alex, the protagonist of his masterpiece Clockwork Orange, wear them.
In recent times, as we mentioned, hipsters were the ones to make them popular again, so much so that suspenders have been completely emancipated.
Buttonholes and clips, X and Y-backs
There are two main types of suspenders: those with clips, more modern and informal, and those with buttonholes, more classic, that are attached directly to buttons sewn on to trousers. Historically the buttons were on the outside of trousers and were hidden by a vest but, with the gradual disappearance of vests (which have however recently come back into fashion), tailors started to hide buttons on the inside of trousers. Today the clear obstacle to the spread of suspenders with buttons is that to be worn they require trousers with special buttons attached. The second element to consider in the choice of suspender is the type of suspender back. Y-back suspenders are those in which the support braces come together in a single strap. It’s the most elegant and discreet variety, perfect especially for those who are long-limbed, and are used with tailored or made-to-measure suits. X-back suspenders are instead those in which the support braces cross behind the back but are attached separately in two separate positions on the rear waist. Usually X-back suspenders are more suitable for casual and less formal occasions. They are often found in work clothes, as well as in classic ones for those with a solid build.
The golden ratio
With all due respect to Mark Twain, now suspenders are once again elastic, at least in the final part. Suspenders are adjustable, although not with the sort of straps he had envisaged, and made of composite materials: leather but also silk, satin, polyester, or knit. The rule for choosing the right material is “more rigid = more formal”. The golden ratio of suspenders, that which indicates the perfect proportion between length and width, is strongly tied to the wearer’s height and build. It’s a matter of proportions: suspenders that are too wide clash with a small build, while at the same time suspenders that are too narrow would disappear on someone who has a massive build.
Choosing the right color (and moment)
The most popular colors are classic dark, solid hues. Black suspenders go well with a white shirt and dark tie: they should be coordinated with the tie or shirt color if you plan to wear them under a vest. Robert Redford and Leonardo di Caprio, in the role of the Great Gatsby at an interval of 40 years from each other, both wore suspenders and both hid them under a vest, wearing light colors for an elegance that withstands the test of time.
If instead you want to show them off it’s better to choose a pattern and coordinate it with that of the tie, keeping to a minimum chromatic or design contrasts, favoring vertical designs that slim the figure. But, as always, everyone is free to build his own look: tastefully choosing the type of attachment, the suspender back, the material, the right proportions and an appropriate pattern is a real exercise in style.