Do you ever notice something that’s so commonly used that it’s practically ubiquitous — even though it doesn’t work that well? We get used to things. But does that mean they really make sense? I’m sure some examples come to your mind — maybe some medical practice, maybe a political practice, maybe even something where the stakes are really high. Like … hmm … belts?
STEPHEN J. DUBNER: So Levitt, list for me if you would, all the accessories and items of, let’s say, jewelry that you wear in a given day.
STEVEN LEVITT: You include a belt?
DUBNER: Sure, let’s include a belt.
LEVITT: Okay. A belt. Yeah, I’ve never worn a watch. I’ve never worn jewelry. I don’t, um —
DUBNER: No cravat?
DUBNER: You ever wear a pocket square?
LEVITT: I’ve never worn, in my life, I don’t think I’ve ever had a pocket square, and I certainly have never worn a pocket watch.
DUBNER: Hmm. Cufflinks?
LEVITT: Only when forced to on tuxedo days.
DUBNER: Uh huh. And so for someone who wears no sartorial accessories, why the belt?
LEVITT: Boy, you’ve left me speechless. I don’t know why I wear a belt.
Steve Levitt is my Freakonomics friend and co-author. Now, you’d think when I asked Levitt why he wears a belt, he’d give the obvious answer — to hold up his pants. That’s what a belt is for, isn’t it? Or is it? The late comedian Mitch Hedberg once wrestled with this question:
HEDBERG: I got a belt on that’s holding up my pants. And my pants have belt loops that hold up my belt. I don’t know what’s really happening down there. Who is the real hero?
On today’s episode, we too will wrestle with this and even more pressing questions about the belt. Hey, don’t laugh it off. There are health implications; there are economic implications; there are of course aesthetic implications.
We also look at another solution to another problem — one that really is life and death — that just about everyone believes in. Even though they probably shouldn’t.
* * *
The conventional wisdom seems to hold that wearing a belt is the right thing to do. For at least two obvious reasons. Number one: utility.
VOICES ON THE STREET:
Classic Corrella: I mean, well I am a belt person, because it does help keep up the trousers.
Rachel: They’re needed if you can’t keep your pants up.
Robin Blades: I always wear trousers that are a bit big so if I don’t wear a belt I’m in trouble.
And reason number two: style.
VOICES ON THE STREET:
Molly Etling: I love belts. I wear belts all the time. I think they complete an outfit.
Chuck Heaphy: Yes, I always wear belts. They look good.
Edward Qian: I got a belt on right now. I wear belts like pretty much everyday. I’d feel naked if I wasn’t wearing one.
So there’s a lot of pro-belt sentiment out there. A lot of belt wearers, a lot of belt lovers. Let me get this right out in the open: I am not among them. I don’t like belts very much. I don’t think they work very well; I find them uncomfortable. And I’m always reminded of this on the rare occasions that I do wear a belt, when I take it off at the end of the day, and instantly feel much better. So I was happy to have a conversation with someone who feels the same way …
DANIEL SEFCIK: For me it really started back in about 2010 when I was teaching physics in high school.
That’s Daniel Sefcik.
SEFCIK: I’m a data admin for Newbold Advisors as well as an instructor for Lone Star Community College.
DUBNER: Gotcha, and you live where, Daniel?
SEFCIK: Spring, Texas. Basically north Houston.
Okay, back to when he was teaching high school:
SEFCIK: And at the time I had a belt that wore out, you know, I’d had it for several years, and I thought for a second while I was looking for a new belt about the physics of what I was getting. And I was like, well, wait a minute. This basically works the same way as a tourniquet. You know, you strap it on, pull it tight, and hope your pants don’t fall down. But the physics of a belt — it pushes in, and hopes that it creates enough friction to have your pants not fall down. Well, that didn’t make sense. Here I was talking to my students about physics, and what direction gravity was pulling and moving things, and here I was wearing a belt. And I thought about it a little bit, and I was like, well, wait a minute. I need something to pull up, if gravity is pulling down.
DUBNER: So if you’re looking for something to pull pants north while gravity is pulling them south …
SEFCIK: Well, that’s suspenders. And so I took a look around and started wearing them, and they were exceedingly comfortable. And so from there on out, I was like well, I’m not going to get any more belts.
DUBNER: So your argument is that suspenders are essentially superior to belts in terms of the function that belts are supposed to serve, which is holding up pants. Correct?
SEFCIK: Absolutely. And that they’re superior as well in comfort.
DUBNER: Okay. So, let’s say for a minute that I buy your argument hook, line, and sinker — or belts and suspenders as some people say. No offense to you at all, but why does it take until 2015 and a high-school physics teacher near Houston, Texas, to ask this question that surely millions if not billions of people have had opportunity to ask before which is, “Why are we wearing these suboptimal things when there’s something not only that doesn’t have to be invented, but already exists, that does the job better?” Why were you the guy?
SEFCIK: I would not subscribe something quite so grand to myself, but as far as why belts rule, the apparel choice and the choice of holding up your pants, I’d honestly say that it’s mostly social momentum.
Ah, social momentum. Is it true that the belt is superior to the suspender in the eyes of the people who create social momentum?
“I mean, suspenders have an image problem.”
STEELE: You think of them as being worn by people who are maybe too fat to be comfortable wearing a belt, so you have that image. You have some cool images like punks wear suspenders, but even that is a very aggressive kind of look. So belts on the other hand seem much more normative.
But how did belts become normative? Obviously, we need to take a step back.
DUBNER: So Chloe, not to be too forward, but what are you wearing right now?
CHAPIN: That’s a great question. I’m wearing jeans, a V-neck t-shirt, and a sweater and suede shoes that have purple soles.
DUBNER: Okay, so let’s talk briefly about the history of pants, please.
CHAPIN: Pants were theoretically invented by the Eurasian horse riders of the Eurasian steppes in the Bronze Age, so maybe 3,000 B.C.
DUBNER: And they were wearing what before pants?
CHAPIN: Like a tunic or a wrap. You could think of like a kilt or a sari or a sarong. Any big kind of cloth that you could wrap around the body, that would need to be held up. So belts existed before pants did.
DUBNER: I see, and belts were worn where? Were they worn more midriff?
CHAPIN: Yeah, I think you could think like Braveheart or one of those kind of things, where you would use it to cinch the clothing around you and also as a way to hold up your sword belt.
DUBNER: Okay, so they were functional in at least two or more ways at once.
CHAPIN: Exactly. They would hold your clothes onto you and also hold accessories on to you as well.
DUBNER: But then if you want to ride a horse all day, pants are helpful.
CHAPIN: Right, it just helps with the chafing.
DUBNER: Oh with the chafing, right.
CHAPIN: But they were not considered fashionable with fashionable societies. Like, the classical world, the Greeks and Romans, they never wore pants. They were considered barbaric. You could say pants really entered into the fashion lexicon — based on the Western European system — in the early 1800s. Like, 1820s was when trousers first started to be worn. They had been wearing breeches, which were slightly different and they only fell to the knee. So these new trousers were cut very high-waisted, like above your belly button, so you had to have suspenders to wear them because a belt wouldn’t be functional.
DUBNER: And they were worn almost always with suspenders then?
So the belt came along well before the suspender, but there was a time when suspenders took the lead role in holding up pants. How, then, did the belt win? Well, pants themselves became more widespread, worn in more circumstances — by coal miners, for instance, who carried heavy stuff in their pockets and needed those pants held up. Recreational sports were becoming more common.
CHAPIN: The problem with suspenders is that they’re attached to your shoulders. So if you’re doing any movement where your hips and your shoulders are twisting or moving at different paces, like fighting or sports, a belt might be more practical for you. Because you can just imagine, like, you lift your shoulders [and] if you had on trousers it might give you a little bit of a wedgie.
DUBNER: OK, so the belt was —
CHAPIN: Whereas a belt wouldn’t do that.
DUBNER: A wedgie preventer, right?
CHAPIN: Yes, exactly.
The fashion curve was also changing, then, as always. Chapin points to the early 1920s, when pant waists were lowered. The end of World War I brought a burst of military-inspired fashion — including belts. Cowboys switched from suspenders to belts, in part because a belt could show off a buckle, which might signify a rodeo victory.
Other victory belts would come along — for wrestling, for boxing. And achievement belts — in karate, for instance. The belt became a symbol of strength, of accomplishment. The suspender, meanwhile, would go on to become the symbol of … what: Urkel? The cater waiter?
But if there’s one person you’re looking to blame for taking the belt mainstream, it’d probably be …
CHAPIN: The Duke of Windsor. He was a very small man, so it’s possible that some of the things he helped to popularize were things that just looked good on him. If he was a very rotund gentleman, he might have made suspenders popular instead of belts.
The Duke of Windsor — known before his abdication in 1936 as King Edward the Eighth of the United Kingdom — embraced the belt. At the time, Chloe Chapin says, the belt was seen as a casual, very American thing.
CHAPIN: And so oftentimes what these princes were known for was for wearing and making popular a fashion that an older generation would consider to be much too casual, whether that was morning coats or belts; they were often sort of trendsetters. It was like the people, his friends that were sitting next to him, and then those people would have dinner with someone else and they would be like, “Oh, after dinner I’m unbuttoning my jacket, just like the prince does. You know how I hang out with the prince all the time, because I’m so important.” And then one thing passes on to the next. It’s like a celebrity haircut today. You want to associate with someone you admire or look up to or think is fancy or important, and so you mimic their style.
And this is where we must acknowledge that if you are the kind of person who thinks about clothing as primarily practical — as our friend Daniel Sefcik thinks about the belt and suspenders — well, maybe you aren’t thinking about it right.
STEELE: Fashion is and always has been about much more than function. Back in the 19th century, scholars used to think that fashion developed out of functional needs. But in fact all the research has shown that throughout world history, people have used clothing and adornment to signal messages to other people. So whether or not suspenders are more “functional” than belts is kind of beside the point.
As Valerie Steele points out, this notion goes well beyond the belt.
STEELE: You can choose clothes that you think are more functional — you could choose to wear sneakers rather than leather shoes, or rather than high heels. But it’s all going to be relative in what you tell yourself is functional for you. It’s like people used to think pants were more functional than dresses. But really it’s all in your head what’s going to be important to you. I remember living in Indonesia and a very famous old artist was invited to come to England and he refused to come because he said to me with horror, “They’re going to make me wear trousers and shoes.” And this is so uncomfortable and horrible, instead of wearing a sarong and flip flops or bare feet. So the idea that clothes are primarily functional — it’s primarily about what makes you feel comfortable and confident.
I think you’ll admit Steele makes a good point. That said, there is evidence the modern belt is — well, stupid.
* * *
The belt is a fairly ubiquitous item, at least for those of us who wear pants. Men are more likely to wear belts than women — in part because men are more likely to wear pants, but also because the male body is shaped more like a tube, without the nice rounded hip that prevents pants from slipping down. That’s unless you’re wearing very tight pants or perhaps pants with a drawstring or an elastic waistband, or pants that have been tailored to snugly fit your very own tubular male form.
In all these cases, a belt isn’t necessary — at least not as a functional item. The fashionability of the belt is, as we’ve established, a separate and perhaps more salient issue.
In any case, there are among us some men who are dissatisfied with the belt, who see it as a poor substitute for, say, suspenders. Men like Daniel Sefcik of Spring, Texas.
DUBNER: So Daniel, let’s make you king for a day. Would you take action against the belt or in favor of the suspender? Or are you the kind of guy who says, you know what, I figured out a better solution for myself and if the rest of the world doesn’t want to get on board, that’s their problem?
SEFCIK: In the king-for-a-day scenario, I would definitely, if I could, issue everyone a pair of suspenders, probably either black or navy because that should fit most outfits, and say, Okay, for one week I want you to try it. After a week if you still want your belts, okay, that’s fine. That’s your option. I’m not going to be an oppressive king. I want to be at least a little beneficent there. But I think that given the opportunity to see and interact with your peers in a set of suspenders, coupled with the comfort and the functionality of suspenders, I think that would probably swing it to where we would see suspenders almost everywhere. And belts would kind of go towards the wayside.
Valerie Steele of the Fashion Institute of Technology thinks that Sefcik is — how shall we say this? — delusional.
STEELE: The thrift stores would be full of discarded pairs of suspenders. I mean, I think that you would find essentially no women wearing suspenders except for a handful who wanted to get that kind of Berlin-in-the-1920s, cross-dressing look. And you’d get a few fat guys and a few punky guys who would like suspenders. Maybe a few hapless guys who thought the Wall Street look circa 1985 was still stylish who would wear suspenders. But most people would keep on wearing whatever they were wearing before, belts or no belts.
Ouch! Maybe Valerie Steele is right. Maybe the belt is too firmly established as the winner of the holding-up-our-pants contest, and the suspender is irretrievably unfashionable. But before we just accept that and move on, let’s at least look at a few empirical differences between the two.
Belts, by squeezing inward rather than tugging upward, can be uncomfortable – and, if worn too tight, potentially harmful.
KEN HANSRAJ: Around the pelvis there’s a nerve that lives there called the lateral femoral cutaneous nerve.
That’s Ken Hansraj, a spinal and orthopedic surgeon in Poughkeepsie, New York.
HANSRAJ: Belts can compress it and cause thigh pain. And that’s called meralgia paresthetica. So if your belt is too tight and you do not have an adequate amount of girth or fat to protect you then the belt will be on the nerve, irritating the nerve, causing thigh numbness and sometimes pain.
Hansraj’s most recent book is called Keys to An Amazing Life: Secrets of the Cervical Spine. A lot of patients who come to him with pain in their backs or necks have something in common: they wear a belt and use it for something beyond holding up their pants.
HANSRAJ: When you have, for example, firemen or medical doctors or plumbers, people that carry a lot of weight around their waist, they are not aware of the consequence of the weight. It’s not just the weight; there is a force-times-distance [factor]. And I can tell you from doing other studies that the weight you’re carrying around your waist probably weighs seven to nine times more to your spine because of the consequence of force times distance.
Suspenders, Hansraj says, can offer a lot more support for carrying the weight. That’s why you’ve often seen loggers and construction workers wearing them. And a couple of police studies found that wearing suspenders, along with a duty belt, increased comfort and performance.
All that said, I get it. I get that suspenders just aren’t a social norm – not yet, at least – and that the belt, for now, reigns supreme.
Perhaps, then, we should focus on at least improving the belt.
ANDREW HEFFERNAN: I think the way the belt market is at the moment, is broken.
That’s Andrew Heffernan. He’s a founder of a company called Beltology.
HEFFERNAN: And this is the idea of wearing a piece of leather around your waist with pre-punched holes that basically has no give, it’s like wearing a tourniquet around your waist. You know, it never fits properly and becomes very uncomfortable.
Heffernan did not start out in belts.
HEFFERNAN: I worked for years as a medical doctor in Ireland and then I went to work for Goldman Sachs as a banker and then I did my MBA at Harvard. And after Harvard I worked as a consultant at Bain & Company.
He saw an opportunity in what he calls the broken belt market.
HEFFERNAN: So, menswear is the fastest-growing part of the apparel industry right now. And accessories is the fastest growing part of menswear. And then when you dig into men’s accessories, you see that pretty much every accessory is growing at double digits except the belt.
Americans buy about 180 million belts a year.
HEFFERNAN: And again, it’s been pretty close to that for the last few years. And this is in a context where — take socks for example — where colorful socks has been growing at like 40 percent at specialty stores. Gloves is growing, scarves, hats, pocket squares, tie bars, even ties was growing at one stage. And then you look at these numbers for the belt, and so the numbers were telling a story. So we believe that is a sleeping giant of a market.
And that’s why Heffernan founded, along with Anna Lundberg, the online shop Beltology.
HEFFERNAN: So number one, we think that there’s a change in functionality in the way you wear your belt. And number two is the idea that subtly your belt can become an expressive accessory.
Number two kind of speaks for itself. As for number one, the functionality issue — Beltology sells a stretch woven belt, which is popular in Sweden, Lundberg’s home country. The metal prong passes through the woven webbing rather than pre-punched holes. Which means it looks like a traditional belt — not like a camping belt, with the sliding buckle — but is, theoretically at least, a little more comfortable and a lot more adjustable. Heffernan believes the Beltology formula is working:
HEFFERNAN: In our first year, we did sales roughly of half a million dollars and in our second year we’re hoping to do sales of close to one-and-a-half million dollars.
I wish Heffernan and Lundberg all the luck in the world with their business, and if they can make the belt a little better — well, that’s nice too.
But I can’t help thinking that the belt, for all its mainstream acceptance, for all its style potential, for whatever functionality it has — is still a pretty suboptimal solution to the primary problem it’s trying to solve, which is holding up pants.
And it reminds me therefore of another suboptimal solution to a problem that’s a lot more important than pants:
STEVEN LEVITT: I started thinking about car seats when I was doing other research on auto fatalities related to drunk driving. And at the same time, I was taking my kids in and out of car seats every day, and I always had the feeling that they flopped around a lot and among other things what car seats do is they prop you up really high in the air, and as I was looking at data on car crashes I came to understand that there were really only two ways you could die in a car crash. One was that you were projected because you weren’t restrained at all and you slammed into the glass or were thrown out of the car. And the other is if the space you were in collapsed around you and crushed you. And so in that principle, it seemed like the lower the better when you were in a car. And so that was my intuition about car seats, is that they were floppy and they got you up in the air. And that might put you at risk. So then we looked at the data.
The data were from the U.S. government, which does a good job collecting information on just about every traffic accident in the country, including the causes, the occupants of the vehicles, whether any one’s been drinking — and whether the passengers were restrained by seat belts or, in the case of children, car seats.
LEVITT: And what we found in the data was really remarkable. It just, it seemed like the benefit of a car seat, a children’s car seat, relative to a child wearing an adult seat belt, was minimal. Almost zero. So in our research, in terms of fatalities, car seats didn’t help at all. In terms of injuries, mostly relatively minor injuries, it seemed like car seats had a small advantage relative to adult seat belts. But compared to the mythology that has arisen around car seats in which people seem to think, wow, these are the greatest inventions ever, the facts and the mythology just didn’t seem to line up very well at all.
DUBNER: Hmm. So if you’re really concerned about protecting kids in cars — the vast majority of whom ride in the backseat — what would be a better way to rig a car rather than add on car seats?
LEVITT: So I don’t even know the answer to that because there’s been so little thought and research put into it because the car seat has been king.
Kind of like … the belt has been king. To test out the car-seat theory, Levitt and I contacted an independent lab that conducts crash tests. We commissioned two tests: a 3-year-old-sized dummy in a car seat versus a 3-year-old dummy in lap-and-shoulder belt; and a 6-year-old-sized dummy in a booster seat versus a 6-year-old dummy in lap-and-shoulder belt. Within minutes, we had some data:
LEVITT: And the adult seat belt did great. It would have passed all of the federal requirements that they have for car seats. But I think you and I both came to believe that ironically the people in this industry really weren’t that interested in saving kids’ lives. It seemed like they were more interested in selling products and avoiding lawsuits than actually reducing fatalities.
DUBNER: So you just answered my next question, which is Why, if car seats aren’t really that good at doing the one thing they’re supposed to do, why are they so omnipresent? I mean, really omnipresent because they’re regulated. I mean, how do you describe this kind of weird scenario? You’ve got auto-makers who aren’t responsible, right, for protecting kids in back seats really. You’ve got child-car-seat manufacturers who aren’t responsible, even if their stuff doesn’t work that well, and they profit from them, and then there’s the government who demands it. Is that weird triangulation the reason we’ve got this suboptimal solution?
LEVITT: Yeah, I think it’s a perfect storm of incentives leading to bad outcomes. The only people fighting car seats in this entire country, Dubner, are you and me.
But the underlying point is a broader one — for car seats and belts and probably a million other things we use every day without thinking about too much. We form habits. We accept conventional wisdoms that may not be very wise. We think that once someone has come up with some kind of solution, there’s no reason to rethink it.
Well, I think we should all do a bit less of this. Our working headline for this episode was “Belts Are Stupid.” Out of respect for belt lovers everywhere, we ended up toning it down. But I’m not willing to let go of the sentiment — and I’m curious to know what else you think is, on some level, stupid. What’s something you encounter or use or think about all the time that could really use a makeover?
* * *
And while we’re talking about stupid things — we’re working on another episode about the stupid things we do in a kitchen. We’re talking with a food-science guy who says we’re getting a lot wrong. We’ll answer questions like, when is the best time to salt your burger? How long you should let your eggs sit before they go on the stove? And is New York pizza really better because of the water? And we’d like to put your voice in this episode too. What are some of the culinary secrets you swear by? Who taught them to you and … do they really work? No recipes, please. Make a brief audio recording — just use whatever voice memo app is on your phone — and email us the file at radio (at) freakonomics (dot) com. Please tell us your name, age, and where you’re from. Thanks.
* * *
Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Audrey Quinn. Our staff includes Arwa Gunja, Jay Cowit, Merritt Jacob, Greg Rosalsky, Christopher Werth, Caroline English, Alison Hockenberry, and Kasia Mychajlowycz. We had help this week from Matt Fidler.
- “Low Back Pain in Police Officers” by Jennifer Gwyn Arts (master’s thesis, 2006).
- Keys to an Amazing Life: Secrets of the Cervical Spine by Ken Hansraj (Dee Dee LLC, 2012).
- “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Child Safety Seats and Seat Belts in Protecting Children from Injury,” Joseph J. Doyle, Jr. and Steven D. Levitt
- “Evidence That Seat Belts Are As Effective As Child Safety Seats In Preventing Death For Children Aged Two And Up,” Steven D. Levitt
- “The Seat-Belt Solution,” Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, The New York Times, (July 10, 2005).