Buckle Down: The Elusive History Of The Belted-Back Trouser

Contributing writer Christopher Sharp has buckled-down, hit the books, and put his nose to the grindstone in an effort to suss out once and for all the origins of the mid-’50s buckle-back chino trend.

* * *

During my formative years back in the Fifties, I was the kind of kid who was secure in the belief that God wore buttondown shirts and madras Bermuda shorts. The worst villain passed my inspection if he wore trousers with a vestigial little belt in the back or possessed the skill to tie a bow tie. Good and bad were simply a matter of tweedy and non-tweedy.

That was how Owen Edwards, in a November, 1988 GQ article, described his youth in the boom years of the Ivy style.  What I find of note is how solidified in his mind some three decades latter was the signifgence of the belted back trouser to the Ivy image.

With the recent resurgence of interest in the Ivy League Look and the historical study of it components, one of the natural questions is where did the 1950s phenomenon of the belted-back trouser originate?

In our previous article on H.I.S we attributed it to Jesse Siegel. We made this claim initially based on an article entitled “Jesse Made the Pants Just Right,” which appeared in the April 15, 1966 issue of Forbes, that claimed,  ”Siegel was the first to take khakis, an old-time favorite in work clothes, put a buckle on the back, aim it toward the youth market. “ A second contemporary source is a H.I.S advertisement from 1958 that makes a more detailed claim. The advertisement is for a new line of back-flapped khakis called the Post-Grads and plays one trend off another. The copy reads “H.I.S introduced the Ivy-Alls six years ago and saw them become the biggest style idea in the history of men’s slacks. We still turn them out by the thousands every week, but the future belongs to the Post-Grads.” The copy goes on to say, “the buckle-on-the-back has yielded to a pair of neat flaps.” This advertisement places the introduction of the belted back Khaki trouser to 1952.

One might wonder where Siegel got the idea for a back-belted chino. Ivy Style asked Roland L. Kimberlin, a former HIS executive, who points to an earlier time in Siegel’s life hinted at by his nickname “Yank”.  “He was quite the good baseball player and had a try out with the New York Yankee’s farm team. Baseball gloves at the time had a buckle back strap which you could tighten to fit your wrist and hold it snuggly in place. It is rumored that this is were the idea came from.” Even if this explanation is apocryphal it was good for business. The rumor was never challenged, and Siegel and those associated with this project are all dead.

Ivy-Alls is an interesting bit of word play. It almost sounds like “IVY-HALLS” (and if you perform an Internet search for “Ivy-Alls,” Google suggests “Ivy halls” instead). Even the logo has what appears to be a campus building. The two words viewed independently, Ivy is firmly collegiate and “alls” seems to harken back to H.I.S workwear roots, bringing to mind overalls. The two words together form a creative name for a hybrid product.

Ivy-Alls were described in a 1955 advertisement as a “new slim silhouette” with a “low hip fit”.  They measured 21 inches at the knee and 18 inches at the cuff. These measurements are echoed in other contempory trousers, like the flannel and stillwater worsted sold by Milton Julian, owner of Milton’s Clothing Cupboard of Chapel Hill. The wool version sold for $18.95 in 1954, while the cotton Ivy-Alls retailed for $5.95 in 1955.

Period Advertising demonstrates other college outfitters offered wool belted-back trousers. In 1955 Browing King & Co sold Majer slacks for $21.95; their advertising copy states the trousers were “Approved by the Ivy trade.” Another venerable Cornell outfitter, Irv Lewis, offered charcoal flannels for $15.95 the same year.

Two of the earliest proponents of the slim trouser among the famous names were Chipp and J.Press. A tipped-in Chipp mini catalog was included in the 1952 Gentry Holiday issue and featured several odd trousers with a back belt in the same dimensions mentioned above. Chipp offered three shades of grey flannel priced at $17.50, two shades of gray nine-ounce worsted at $21.50, and one shade of whipcord for $27.50. A  J. Press advertisement in the same issue offers “clean hanging flat hipped and slim legged” trousers in charcoal flannel for $18.50 and two shades of worsted at $22.50. The Chipp India whipcord trouser in charcoal gray with a belted back was introduced in the fall 1953 Gentry college fashion article. The belt was still present on all trousers when Paul Winston joined Chipp in 1961, Winston told Ivy-Style.com.

A 1955 advertorial for the Pittsburgh firm Hughes & Hatcher puts the look together by defining “Ivy Style” as “British influence, characterized by natural easy fitting coats, very little shoulder padding, slimmer lapels and three or four buttons. Trousers are narrower, often unpleated, often with strap in the back. Tweeds, flannels, herringbone…” By all accounts it appears this retailer had a coherent look to sell.

To get a better sense of the period and the signifigence of the belted-back trouser, Ivy Style spoke with Stuart Lewis, who possesses the duel ability to address the subject both as college man and tradesman. He is the son of Irv Lewis and was a retailer for 38 years in Ithaca, NY. Lewis graduated high school in 1952 and was in the Bucknell University class of 1956. As a university student he was an early adopter of the “soft shoulder” style, and as a retailer promoted the look we call “Ivy.” He affirmed the importance of both the cotton odd trouser and grey flannels in the collegiate wardrobe. Gray flannels he said were of charcoal or Cambridge grey, with “heavy and lofty” English and Scottish woolens preferred. Shetland jackets were worn often with elbow patches, a casualty of resting one’s elbows on wooden desks. During those years,” You wore a jacket and a repp tie to dinner in your frat house.” On the subject of the back belt, Lewis described it in perfect mid-century terms, saying, “It was like fins on a car. It was a detail, and details are what sells fashion.”

As a retailer, he explained the way you sell a customer a pair of grey flannel trousers when he already owns a pair is to change the details. Why did students want the back belt? Simple: they wanted to be cool. This brings us back to Jesse Segel. When he was interviewed for the 1966 Forbes article, he reflected on his success with the buckle back, stating, “The stragedy was simple, We took the basic cheap garment and put a little fashion in it.’”

In the world view of college students, manufacturers and retailers of the 1950s, fashion wasn’t a dirty word. And for a time campus cool meant wearing white bucks and a belted-back trouser. Sixty years later as a few portions of the trade make another run at offering the belted-back trouser, we zoom full-speed ahead back to the future.” — CHRISTOPHER SHARP

31 Comments on "Buckle Down: The Elusive History Of The Belted-Back Trouser"

  1. Great article, Chris, and kudos for contacting Stu Lewis for his insight.

  2. It was a gag in the fifties at Yale that a “belt in the back” at J. Press didn’t refer to pants. It meant joining a salesman in the back of the store for a belt of Canadian Club.

  3. I ‘ve seen trousers in civil war museums with nearly identical adjusters in the back. In the 1950s they were just recycling a very old idea which caught on as a fad.

    Scott

  4. Chris,
    About Brooks Brothers double breasted:

    http://forums.filmnoirbuff.com/viewtopic.php?id=10144

  5. The disappearance of the belt in the back, like the disappearance of the locker loop on shirts is not really a cause for mourning.

  6. This is the one and only thing about the style I love, that I hate!

  7. Springfield | February 3, 2012 at 1:31 am |

    The buckle’s main function was to create noise in washing machines and tumble dryers.

  8. Christopher Lloyd | February 3, 2012 at 2:47 am |

    Scott is correct.
    Another point to consider is that the original flannels were the track suit bottoms of their day, worn over the shorts of Oxford rowers for warmth after an afternoon on the river. They were big and baggy and pulled in at the back with a cinch to fit as they were manufactured cheaply in limited sizes as serviceable but ultimately throw-away items.
    Later these “trousers” were tailored and became more formal. Later still the original cinch was revived as a fashion detail.

  9. A classic case of “something old is new again.” The belt in the back was a common feature of men’s trousers before the introduction of belt loops. Back belts, like trouser watch pockets, are attractive vestigial remnants of Victorian-era style and tailoring.

  10. Fantastic article…Well written and researched…Thanks!!!

  11. My thanks to all who read this. As always I appreciate you folks taking the time to comment.

  12. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late fifties and early sixties, the belt in the back was not used for adjusting the slack in the pants. It was thought to be a very cool detail, which some kids used to show their availability (buckled vs unbuckled).

  13. Very insightful article and it’s great to see those old ads. Pretty sure I read this awhile back when it first came out, but great to read again. I agree with the comments that the buckle back is a detail that gives a nod to turn of the century menswear and has been re-appropriated throughout the years. It was a very common feature on workwear pants/jeans as well, as noted above, around the turn of the century.

    Personally I’m a fan and think it give’s a little interest to the rotation in my khaki/chino arsenal. So much so that I’ve taken it upon myself to produce a small amount of them, in Cramerton cloth as well:) The buckle is placed at the top of the waist to provide true functionality. Don’t mean to advertise, but it seems appropriate to this discussion….you can see them here: thoroughstitch.com

  14. The back belt is a fantastic detail on a pant, but the rise needs to be higher than we are accustomed to today. Didn’t Bill’s Khakis do a run of these in better days?

  15. Dustin Duncan | June 3, 2018 at 12:53 am |

    High rise?
    Technically, rise is the difference between the inseam and outer seam length, and should be described as short or long.
    “High” could be used to describe the waist or the crotch. A pair of trousers coul have a high crotch and a low waist (the norm today), or a high crotch and a high waist (less common). A high waist and a low crotch would produce the longest rise, and for old-timers, the most comfort.
    What do other readers understand by Michael Brady’s use of “hıgh rıse”?

  16. R. Chelik | June 3, 2018 at 1:31 am |

    Like Dustin Duncan, I too am frequently confused by inconsistent use of the term “rise” and what people think it refers to.
    I’m sure that Mr. Press could clarıfy this matter for us.
    I also don’t know if Mr Brady is referring to a higher crotch or a higher waist.

  17. Mitchell S. | June 3, 2018 at 7:03 am |

    Levi’s jeans worn by nineteenth century gold prospectors featured a buckle in the back. This feature was common for workwear at the time.

  18. Back in the early 1960s, I had a couple pairs of trousers with the back buckles. Positively hated them.

    I recall the buckles catching on things, like the old time woven car seats. Maybe a necessity back before belt loops, but a stupid fad later on.

    My opinion.

  19. Just Sayin' | June 3, 2018 at 10:25 am |

    “the *dual ability”… Leave the duels in CC’s fiction

  20. G. Bruce Boyer | June 3, 2018 at 2:13 pm |

    Interesting article. I tend to agree with Mr. Lloyd that this detail (as with many details) may have come from the workout utility gear worn by the Oxford rowing clubs. See James Laver’s theory on sports and military. As it happens there are photos and illustrations of men wearing high-rise, fishback waistband-less trousers with a utilitarian belt in back from as early as mid- 19th Century. A little historical research — always better than mere opinion — reveals that in 1857 “[Trousers] may be worn without braces as the waistband may be fastened behind by buckle and strap.” (see Cunnington & Cunnington, Handbook of English Costume in the 19th century, p. 206. These trousers, funnily enough, were called “American” style.

  21. Canadian Trad | June 3, 2018 at 6:39 pm |

    @Squeeze Now, that’s my kind of belt in the back!

  22. @R. Chelik,

    Perhaps Mr. Boyer could clarify the “rise” issue for us.

  23. ianjlawton@gmail.com | June 4, 2018 at 6:22 am |

    A fine article with worthy comments.
    I have just ordered a suit for the summer with the back buckle option.
    As it is a casual suit (herringbone linen) I felt that it was appropriate. It’s a nice, but maybe quirky these days, detail.
    My tailor offers various options from sterling silver downwards. I got the lightweight pewter.

  24. Down Tradden | June 4, 2018 at 6:32 am |

    @ianjlawton

    Lightweight pewter?

    You do realise that peweter contains lead,don’t you!

    Do you really need more lead in your pencil?

  25. Dylan Baldwin | June 4, 2018 at 6:44 am |

    It’s not the bucklestrap, but the gentleman’s cut of the Majer slacks (top ad) that attracted my attention. Outstanding!

  26. Downtown/Chelik: When the term “high rise” is used, it near-universally means “long rise”, as in a high waist that sits at or slightly above the natural waist as opposed to below the hip bones. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone refer to a higher crotch as a high rise, in fact that would really be a “low rise”

  27. Len Longville | June 4, 2018 at 3:26 pm |

    DCG:

    Thanks for the clarification. Just goes to show how people can use words imprecisely: it’s the waist, not the rise that is high.

  28. DB McWeeberton | June 18, 2018 at 6:33 pm |

    As immortalized in the ‘beat poem’ recited in 1958’s High School Confidential:

    I had an uncle with an ivy-league car.
    He had life with a belt in the back.
    He had a button-down brain.
    Wind up a belt in the mouth and a button-down lip.

    https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/12/04/a-king-sized-bust/

  29. Bryan Roach | April 1, 2019 at 6:37 pm |

    Is there a place I can obtain a pair of these? I remember Ivy Style published an article in 2011 that mentioned J. Press as retailing a pair, but my current khakis hadn’t worn out yet. Now I need a new pair, but J. Press seems to have withdrawn them.

  30. Dolores Petritus | May 26, 2019 at 4:04 pm |

    There was a name for the buckle back can’t remember it but remember the pants.

  31. I love the beltless khakis with the adjusting strap in the rear just below the wast. I shall have a taylor make two pair, one in khaki and the other in navy blue.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


*