Trousers present two significant conundrums for dancers: they slip down, and shirts untuck from them.
Much of this impracticality is attributable to ill-fit. A bespoke shirt that fits properly will remain tucked while trousers that rest above the waist will remain up. Universally-sized, ready to wear shirts cannot accommodate an individual’s upper arm lifting without pulling the shirt’s body with it.
Bespoke trousers that fit properly, cut to be worn on the waist, will remain there effortlessly (or with the assistance of adjustment tabs) assuming that the waist is narrower in circumference than the hip bones below it. Ready-to-wear trousers are generally designed to be held on the hips by way of a belt.
Both of these methods, however, depend on the trouser waistband wrapping around the abdomen and therefore gripping the shirt. Consequently, once the shirt is untucked it is held in that position, leading to the dreaded phenomena of mushrooming: a rogue shirt that gives the appearance of wearing an accordion.
The practicality of braces
Style writer Simon Crompton explains the advantages of braces (or ‘suspenders’ in American English):
The tension in hanging from the shoulders maintains a smooth, elegant front to trousers. The high-waisted style gives a man longer legs and stops any shirt puffing out between trouser top and the jacket’s waist button. They are also more comfortable around the waist, as they can be looser—not relying on tension in the waistband to keep them up.[i]
Holding up (literally, over the shoulders) trousers with braces permits a looser waistband, which in turns allows a correctly fitting shirt to slip down inside the waistband when you lower your arms. A belt, by contrast, grips the waist and holds even a well-fitting shirt bunched and untucked from the waistband.
The gold standard for braces is the English manufacturer Albert Thurston. Quality braces are constructed from natural materials: silk, wool (weaves such as barathea, boxcloth, and tweed), linen, cotton, and cashmere. Leather tabs on one end of each band attach to buttons inside trouser waistband; tabs at the opposite end join the individual bands to each other around the middle of the back. Braces are often available in one size; have an alterations tailor adjust the length of the braces so that they fit you specifically. Metal clasps on the front of the braces allow for subtle adjustments to accommodate lower- or higher-rise trousers. The style influencers who attend the menswear trade exhibition Pitti Uomo have confirmed that wearing braces with beltloops is perfectly acceptable.
However, despite the evident advantages of braces, Simon Crompton confesses that he doesn’t wear them as he finds them uncomfortable, inconvenient, and showy. These are well-founded criticisms that are worth discussing.
The sensation of the weight of your trousers hanging over your shoulders is odd at first; conversely, the alternative is a similar sensation around the hips or the waist. Ultimately this aspect is impossible to escape in wider trousers, which must hang from somewhere. Braces are inescapably inconvenient insofar as they tabs must be buttoned and unbuttoned before and after wear. As a daily exercise, this could become tiresome; for the dancer dressing for the occasional ball, less so. For Oscar Wilde there was no question over which method is preferable:
Clothes should hang from the shoulder, not from the waist.[ii]
Braces are also singularly unusual in appearance. Historically they were considered to be underwear—as was the shirt—and were worn invisibly beneath a vest, or at least a jacket. Eventually it became acceptable to show the front of the shirt, and later to wear a shirt without a jacket. The popularity of the belt normalised the visibility of the accessory employed to hold trousers in place. In spite of the fact that they perform an identical function, braces remain for most people a slightly odd apparition: not as jarring as the sight of sock garters; but not as respectable as the fashionable belt.
Recently, wearing braces discreetly under a jacket in a manner comparably to sporting daringly patterned or coloured, but usually unseen, socks has emerged, most noticeably among the Pitti Uomo crowd. This practice combines the traditional view of braces as part of the mechanics of an outfit to be worn underneath, while recognising their potential as an elegant accessory. How showy braces appear will depend on the fabric from which they’re constructed. Shiny materials and bright colours and patterns will attract attention where a matte finish and a sole sombre or pale shade will do so to a lesser degree.
For the dancer, the decision may turn on one’s capacity to endure heat under a jacket and one’s willingness to re-tuck one’s shirt all night.
[ii] Quoted in Alan Flusser, Dressing the Man: the Art of Permanent Fashion, HaperCollins, 2002.