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Last update:


03 Oct 2012:

Where to Buy Stuff page updated


















































































































































































































This page is here for the following reason:-

Re-enactors take great care and pride in what they do.  Simply putting on a "costume" is not good enough if you haven't done some researching to make sure that what you are wearing is as accurate-looking as possible.  Time and time again, we see gentlemen turning up at re-enactment events wearing clip-on braces.  Ebay is also awash with clip-on braces being offered as "1940s vintage" or "1940s style".  They are all WRONG!!!!   And yet, it is such a simple thing to correct if you know a little about mens' trouser and braces history. 

Braces have NOT always been the same!


Braces (or "suspenders" to our American friends) are one of mens' oldest fashion accessories.  They first appeared in the 18th century when gentlemen of the wealthier classes began to wear them to support their breeches (type of trousers worn in those days).  Such richer men tended to have exceptionally good diets and regularly suffered expanding waistlines at the dinner table.  Braces came into fashion as they allowed the trouser waistband to expand discreetly without the gentleman having to constantly adjust the tightness of his belt.

Throughout the 19th century, braces became more common amongst all classes.  For the undernourished majority of men who were very skinny, belts were often not capable of keeping trousers up on a waistline so slim that hips were practically non-existent.  It was a man's worst nightmare for his trousers to fall down in public - and braces became his salvation.  Belts were only used ornamentally, on the outside of clothing and coats, while braces did the work of holding trousers up.

In America, where anything invented or designed by anyone would receive a patent protecting it from being copied by anyone else, one Samuel Clemens became the first "inventor" to receive 3 patents on 19th December 1871 for trouser braces he had designed himself.  His pen name was none other than Mark Twain, the famous author of Huckleberry Fin.

Before the discovery of rubber and invention of elastic, in the early 20th century, braces tended to be simply strips of cloth buttoned to the trousers. 

Also until the early 20th century, braces were regarded as part of a gentleman's underwear, and it was considered the height of bad manners to allow one's braces to be seen in public!  So now you know why waistcoats (or "vests" for our American cousins) were invented.  These allowed a man to remove his jacket in warmer weather without exposing his undergarments including his braces. 

It wasn't until the first world war that people became more relaxed about seeing a man strip off to his shirt, exposing his braces, to do some heavy manual work in the summer sun.

A college tug-of-war underway in 1930s England.  Note all the braces on show are the classic 'V' shape rather than the later 'Y'.  Also note the small V notch at the back of the trousers.  By the 1930s, the high cut at the back of the waistline had started to become lower than in the previous decades.

In the aftermath of a Luftwaffe raid on London, rescuers organise  themselves.  A wealth of  period detail is visible here, from hair styles of men, down to the clothing and style of braces.  EBay sellers please note - NO CLIP ONS IN SIGHT!


By the early 1900s, mens' trousers had developed to a certain pattern that is quite different to how they are today.  Unless you could afford a tailor, you bought your trousers off the shelf to a size which roughly fitted you.  And if you were a younger brother getting them from your older sibling, you had to make do with what you were given.  If they were a few inches too big - tough!  You wore them baggy and braces were the ideal method of holding them up.

Apart from the material being much thicker and heavier than today's garments, trousers had no waistline or belt loops.  Brace buttons were either placed on the outside of the waistline area or the inside , or a combination of both (the standard was inside at the back, outside on the front).

Trousers were worn above the waistline rather than today's standard of actually on it - or the current younger generation's fashion statement of falling off the waist and half way down the backside!  In Britain, these were sometimes called "hipsters".  The seat area was often more baggy than we are used to today.  To the rear, the top of the trousers came up higher than the front, and often formed a 'V' notch, either side of which the rear brace buttons were placed.  This was for a number of reasons:-

  • it made sure than when you bent down, wearing just a waistcoat, the waistcoat would not ride up and expose the bottom section of your braces; and

  • your trousers covered your kidneys (located in your lower back), helping to keep them warmer in winter months - remember, homes weren't centrally heated in those days, and a man working outdoors welcomed clothing that kept his lower back warm!

Another purpose for braces was to help keep your underpants up.  Believe it or not, but until the development of elastic, mens' underwear needed another method of support.  Underpants had small loops sewn to the outside of the waist area.  With your shirt tucked into your underpants, you looped the loops on the underpants around the bottom of your braces.  The advantage of this was that, unlike today's underwear, your pants were held up so well that when you bent down, they didn't ride down and expose your bottom.  Today's builders might want to take note!

Co-incidentally, in the early half of the 20th century, most - but not all - young boys wore knee-length shorts until aged about 14.  Getting your first pair of long trousers, or "longs" was considered one of the first major steps in graduating from being a "boy" to becoming a "grown-up".

And, as the formality of wearing a suit whenever out of the house also began to disappear, younger men switched to wearing less formal sleeveless pullovers (sometimes called tanktops) that hid their braces from view whilst still giving them much better freedom of arm movement.  

From the 1930s to early 1960s, turn ups on trousers were quite common.  Button flies gave way to zips.  Pockets had flaps (sometimes buttoned down) - and then didn't.  Trousers were made so that there was some flexibility around the waist - and unlike trousers today - there were a variety of details which allowed the wearer to adjust the waist measurement.  This could be by:-

  • an elastic adjuster hidden inside the waistband that was  tightened or released by buttons at the hips;

  • a buckle and strap arrangement either at the hips or to the centre rear of the trousers;

  • metal sliders on either side of the hips.

BRACES - PRE 1950s  

The late Victorians often had elaborately coloured and bold patterned braces which - as mentioned above - were only seen by the wearer himself (or his lovingly attentive wife who might have bought them for him as a present). 

However, by the early 20th century, as gentlemens' braces became increasingly elasticated and therefore more comfortable on the shoulders, they were usually fairly dull coloured, plain or striped; sometimes with a simple repeating pattern.  If your braces were to be seen in public, then at least they would be muted colours unlikely to shock anyone.  The straps were usually around 1 inch wide, but could be smaller - particularly for smaller men and young boys.

In Britain, all button on braces in the early part of the century resembled the letter 'V' at the back, designed to be worn with the traditional high-waisted trousers as described above.  The connectors to the trousers themselves had mostly been made of soft leather such as calf or goat, but could also be made of braided cord - and later, elasticated cord.

As elastics also started to be used around the waistline of trousers, the high-waistline was gradually lowered.  However, this resulted in the straps of one's braces often slipping off the shoulders because the division of the straps was lower down your back as a result - and could not be adjusted.  'Y' shaped braces had been developed in America where trouser waistlines had dropped the fastest - and these slowly began to find their way to Britain from the 1930s onwards where they were marketed as "high-back braces", because the division was much higher up your back.

For 1940s re-enactment, therefore, you can wear either the 'V' or the 'Y' shaped variants, but be aware that the 'V' shape were still the more common at that time.  Due to the shortage of elastic, Army issue white braces continued to be cotton fabric, unelasticated.

BRACES - 1950 to 1980  

By the mid 1950s, elasticated waistbands on trousers meant that younger men increasingly preferred to dispense with wearing braces and switched to wearing belts.  The older and middle-aged generations however, preferred to keep with the security of knowing their trousers were unlikely to fall down. 

The straps were sometimes made less wide, to make the braces not look so obviously "heavy" in appearance.  Narrower braces, sometimes known as "skinny braces" became more fashionable by the early 1960s.

Clip-on braces first appeared in Britain circa 1952/53.  Although the metal clips had been invented in America in 1894 and patented by a man called David Roth, they were used to hold up ladies stockings and other "interesting underwear".  They only graduated to holding up trousers in the late 1940s where they started to be worn by fashion-conscious, trouser-wearing  American WOMEN as an easier clip-on accessory!  Yes - for WOMEN!! 

However, clip-ons soon became popular with men, who found it easier to unclip them when faced with an emergency visit to the toilet for a poo.  You could quickly unclip the small crocodile clips and drop your trousers rather than going through the rigmarole of removing your pullover or jacket if you were in a hurry.  Clip-ons were originally known as "quick release braces" for this reason.

The early clip-ons were plain coloured or simple striped, but were all the modern narrow variety, with straps about half an inch wide.  Almost all were what are known as the 'X' type, although at the rear, the two straps never crossed.  They were pulled together by a sliding plastic clip which could be adjusted to the wearer's preferred height to prevent the straps falling off the shoulders.  This infinite adjustability made them more popular than the traditional button-on varieties, which went into serious decline from the 1960s onwards.

Fairly plain coloured, striped and muted patterns - braces slowly went out of fashion.   Snubbed by most of the the younger generation, by the 1970s it was only older and middle-aged men who continued to wear them.  They did, however, become popular with young skin-heads, the bovver boys who wore them dangling around their jeans, or otherwise proudly over their shoulders over the Fred Perry T shirt as a symbol of something traditionally "British".


A pair of braces from the late Victorian period.  Notice the intricate stitched pattern of birds sitting on branches.


Above and below: Typical braces of the
1920-1940s were over 1 inch wide
and with a striped pattern.

By the 1960s, brace straps had become narrower 

Example of the early type of clip-on braces which appeared from the early 1950s in Britain.


BRACES - POST 1980s  

In 1978, actor Robin Williams appeared in an American comedy series as the alien Mork in "Mork and Mindy" sporting various pairs of brightly coloured, wider braces, which showed that younger people could still wear them as a fun accessory item. 

Shortly afterwards, in the early 1980's, Michael Douglas appeared in the film "Wall Street" also wearing braces (button on) - and this seemed to start a fashion craze as young British city wheelers and dealers took to wearing them in the office.  Perhaps they were trying to emulate their successful (and older) bosses who still wore them in the boardroom.

Then, the "fashion designers" got to work on changing the basic design!

From the 1980s, clip-on braces came in narrow and wider widths, with all kinds of colours, patterns, pictures and even words!  The traditional white plastic clip at the rear was sometimes replaced with a metal cross-over, literally allowing the brace straps to cross over each other in a proper 'X'.

From the mid-1990s, the 'Y' shaped clip-ons appeared, with three clips rather than the usual four (only one strap attaching to the trousers at the rear).  Some eBay sellers  refer to these as "1940's style", but they will NEVER be what was worn in the 1940s.

Braces which looked like more traditional button-ons also appeared with small crocodile clips in place of the 6 leathered button-holes.  When Tommy Walsh started wearing extra-wide braces on TV gardening programmes, a whole new fashion craze for wearing braces to attach garden and other tools to was started.

Today, braces keep re-appearing as an occasional fashion accessory.  The latest Doctor Who (Matt Smith) has been wearing them, albeit the ultra thin clip on type, whilst older men in the media such as Larry King prefer the wider button on variety (and has kept wearing them through several decades!).


Above: Mork from the planet Ork was a snazzy dresser - he even fixed pin badges to his braces!

'Y' shaped clip-ons appeared from the 1990s onwards.  Some Ebay sellers claim they are "retro 40s style"!  Compare them with the 1920s/1940s braces shown above and see if you agree - or not!




Another example of fashion designer tinkering: these are post 1990s - the leather ends going from small twist to wide splay are Italian/American inspired. The Paisley pattern definitely screams MODERN!!!!

  The most recent development since 2000 has been to replace the 6 button holes with 6 clips.  Totally naff!  

Braces by the Albert Thurston Company are in a league of their own and highly sought after!  This traditional button-on style seen in the first half of the 20th century are still manufactured today.



Why do some older men continue to wear braces, long after they have drifted out - then in and out again - of fashion over the last few decades?

  • They wore braces throughout their childhood and young adulthood.  Its what many of them still feel more comfortable and secure with.

  • Hitching your braces up over your shoulders every morning is a lot easier than fiddling with a belt buckle with arthritic fingers; and

  • Smaller waistlines and hips still struggle to keep trousers up, even with a belt!