Custom belts: art you can wear — from concho to emo

As you’d expect, yer average High Street emo kid has absolutely no idea of the ancestry of their nattily studded fashion belts, and why should they? Adding studs and jewels to leather belts appears to have crossed over from Mexico to American ‘Western’ wear back in the 1920s. The vaqueros’ penchant for affixing conchos and studs to their garments (all the better to reflect their wealth) had picked up native American influences by the time the style hit such mainstream retailers as Miller of Colorado and Montgomery Ward in the 1930s.

Miller western wear catalogue page, circa late-1930s, running the gamut from ornate Mexican (right, second down) and native American styles (left, second down) to the unique result of the addition of Western romanticism.

Montgomery Ward catalog snapshot from the same era, with the centre belt showing how the mix of Mexican, native American and Western styles had coalesced into a unique look.

Paralleling the rise of dandified Western fashions came the motorcyle — the iron horse. Motorcycles were a big deal in America during the post-war years, with a huge number of former servicemen (and women) hankering after an adrenalin rush, one which could easily be provided by joining a club and competing in road runs, hill-climb events and all manner of social gatherings.

Sunday bike run, circa 1950, before motorcycle style became codified by the image of Marlon Brando in 1952’s The Wild One. Note the mix of headgear, pre- and post-WW2 bikes, and jackets.

Those ex-GIs who could afford to buy and run such pre-War bikes as Harleys and Indians started to use their service-attained mech skills to goose ’em up. However, like their four-wheeled hot-rodding cousins, they found new parts — especially chrome — in short supply, no matter the size of their wallets. Hence the classic ‘hand-painted’, ‘no-frills’ look of many modded bikes and hot rods of the era.

But as for upping the ante with personal decoration — which, consciously or not, reflected the iconography of the Wild West — well, that was a different thing…

Vintage Harley Davidson motorcycle cap, circa 1950.

Classic late-1940s jacket studding…

Jeweled and studded belt w/matching wrist protectors, circa late-1940s.

Beautiful 1940s-style repro belt by the Japanese maker, Speedway.

And for sir’s feet — jewelled and studded motorcycle boots, circa 1950.

In July 1947, some 4,000 riders descended upon the small Californian town of Hollister, ostensibly to watch the races organised by the American Motorcycle Association. However, things got out of hand, as you’d expect from an alcohol-fuelled gathering attended by such recently-formed clubs as the Booze Fighters, Jackrabbits and 13 Rebels, all of whom were looking to burn off excess energy and show their fellow riders which club was top. Approximately 50 riders were arrested over the course of the three-day event, which seems nothing compared to the figures for modern festivals, but caused outrage at the time, notably a splashy piece in Life magazine, which prompted the 1952 film, The Wild One. And once the idea of bad-ass bikers was loosed on the fertile minds of the baby boom, the Hell’s Angels generation was a done deal…

All that’s left to do is follow the fertile path of biker style through the rock’n’roll years, the greasers, the punks and the metallers, to your local emo. Simples!

Addendum: It’s highly unlikely that those lovers of the ‘fake vintage’ brand, Hollister, are aware of the connotations of the name.

Members of the Booze Fighters MC relax during the 1947 rally to Hollister

One Response

  1. Joss…great post….I am looking for a knowledgeable writer for a vintage belt blog….I own the brand Old Stud Handmade….specializing in recreations of these great belts…I have a new line coming out and would like to talk to you about using your skills… me at your earliest. …..Kind Regards, Jeff

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