You can spend hours and hours putting together the perfect outfit for a formal occasion or casual get-together. Still, it can all fall apart if you go ahead and choose the wrong belt – or worse yet, find that you don’t own a belt to suit the fit you’ve spent so long agonizing over. That’s why every man needs to know how to pick the perfect belt, though many guys are clueless about what that actually means!
This guide is designed to help dispel the confusion around men’s belts and make you an expert at accessorizing in no time. Here, you’ll find absolutely everything you need to know about men’s dress belts, casual belts, and everything in between, along with some exclusive tips on belt care, outfit pairing, and what kind of belts you should be cycling in your permanent wardrobe.
Anatomy of a Belt
First things first, what actually is a belt? Now, that might seem like a stupid question, but belts are a little more complicated than we often give them credit for. In actual fact, even the most basic belts have several parts, including a buckle, a strap, and usually a keeper loop, which is the loop you slip any extra length into.
Beyond this, many belts have additional parts or accents. While most men’s belts have a rectangular frame buckle with a prong, others might have clip buckles, D-Rings, or O-Rings. And while frame buckles sport a metal buckle bar, other soft leather or canvas belts might opt for studded rivets instead. Sometimes, you’ll also see a leather or metal accent on the tip of a belt, and this decorative element is known as an end tip.
Types of Belts
Though there are many different types of belts, the most common definition between one belt and the next is whether it’s a dress belt or a casual belt. Your typical formal dress belt is easy enough to imagine; it’s slimmer than a casual belt, at 1 – 1.5” in width, made from black or brown leather, and finished with a frame-style buckle. These usually work best as a subtle addition to a suit or formal outfit, and they’re designed to be worn with full suits, separate trousers, or other smart options like chinos. Casual belts, meanwhile, come in many different shapes and sizes. In general, they’ll be thicker than a dress belt, at 1.5 – 1.75” in width. Leather options come in thicker, rugged, or textured variants, while non-leather options can include canvas belts, vinyl belts, and even rope or metal pieces. The buckles on casual belts are much more varied, too, with plate buckles and O/D-Rings a common choice.
Between the two, you might find smart/casual belt types like crocodile leather options or decorative woven leather pieces. There are also more niche types of belts out there for specific uses, like utility belts designed to be worn with heavy-duty work pants and clip-belts for climbing or outdoor activities.
Belt sizes are simple enough to understand. As noted, when it comes to width, most formal belts should be 1 – 1.5” wide, while casual belts often land around the 1.5 – 1.75” mark, though there’s much more flexibility with the latter. In terms of length, meanwhile, you’ll want to take your waist size in inches and add 2” if it’s an even number of 3” if it’s an odd number. This gives you the extra length you’ll need around your trousers for the belt itself, and there’s an extra inch for an odd number to help line up your belt notches with the buckle prong.
There’s a couple of other important things to remember. Firstly, most leather belts will loosen with time, so if they’re a little too snug to begin with, it’s always worth wearing them a few times, in which case they’ll probably relax to a comfortable point. Secondly, if you find that you lose a lot of weight or a belt otherwise becomes too loose over time, there’s always the option of adding another notch rather than buying a whole new belt. This is easy enough to achieve with a cheap leather-punching tool or even a simple screwdriver, but bear in mind you need to think about how much belt should stick out of the keeper loop – if it’s over 3”, you may have to bite the bullet and treat yourself to a better fitting belt.
Materials and Texture
Just about any lightweight, flexible material can be used to make a belt, but the most common types you’ll see in stores are made from animal leathers, synthetic leathers, or canvas variants. Most typical dress belts for men come in shiny matte leather for a slick, well-finished look, whereas most casual leather belts are made from full-grain or pebbled leather.
Full-grain leather is your typical high-grade cowhide leather, and it’s both durable and stylish, with a surface that will build up a beautiful patina over time. Some synthetic leathers aim to replicate this patina with a polyurethane construction, but there’s nothing quite like the real thing, and full-grain leather belts are some of the longest-lasting clothing items out there. They start tough and stiff and gradually soften over time until, eventually, they’re extremely easy to bend and flex.
Other animal leathers commonly seen in belts include lizard skins like crocodile and alligator hides, giving a belt a shiny finish and a deeply textured surface. Cowhide leather can also be worked into various textures, with decorative braided styles and rugged suede options. And if you want something a little more eco-friendly, then a canvas belt is a great pick – they’re also one of the most versatile belts in terms of the dyed patterns and colour options on offer.
Buckles & Buckle Styles
There are a few standard options out there that you’ll see almost everywhere when it comes to belt buckle types. The most recognizable of these is the classic frame buckle, which can be found on most formal belts and many casual belts. This is your typical rectangular frame with a bar and prong – simple as that.
Some formal belts use an adapted version of the frame buckle called a box frame buckle. These clip shut, rather than using a prong, thus eliminating the need for notches in the strap, allowing you to vary the length of the belt by minute degrees. The other most common type of belt buckle you’ll see is an O-Ring or D-Ring buckle on canvas belts. These work by threading the belt fabric through two metal loops or one large one, securing it with its tension.
Aside from this, many casual belts will have custom plate buckles, like western and biker buckles, or clip buckles, such as the kind seen on airplane seats or harness equipment. Whichever kind of buckle your belt sports, the key thing to remember is to incorporate it into your overall style. For example, a plate buckle might be the statement piece you need if you’re going for a striking smart/casual outfit. And by matching the metal type of your buckle with that of your wristwatch, rings, or other accessories, you can build it into the overall colour profile of your outfit too.
Everybody knows that the number one rule of belts is to match the colour of the belt with the colour of your shoes. This is a simple enough feat when you’re wearing dress shoes and a formal belt, but what about casual sneakers and colourful outfits that don’t abide by such strict rules?
Well, it’s still easy enough to create some colour combos regardless of your style. What you’re looking to do with any outfit is to build up a colour profile, combining certain elements to create a sense of flow. This is the reason for matching belts with shoes; if you can pair a maroon belt, maroon shoes, and maroon buttons with a casual blue or grey blazer, you’ve got a great colour profile with a nice middle line that breaks up the outfit and draws the eye towards the subtle accents.
You can build a colour profile with casual outfits by pairing accents in the same way. If you’re wearing white sneakers as a statement piece, wear a subtle belt like a pale canvas belt or a brown matte belt to allow your sneakers to remain the star attraction. If you want the belt to play into the wider colour profile, why not pair a silver buckle with a silver watch and two-tone grey/white sneakers? Ultimately, it’s as simple as that; all you have to do is pick a few core colours, pair accent colours together, and include no more than one statement piece – by following these rules, you can make your belt a great part of any outfit’s overall flow.
Care and Storage
In terms of taking care of belts, less is always more – especially if they’re leather. First things first, avoid getting the belt wet or stained if possible. Leather belts fare poorly with water, but if yours does suffer a rain shower or sudden splash, then it’s important to let it air dry as soon as possible, preferably overnight. Many products are available to help you waterproof or spot-clean a leather belt, though a warm damp cloth and some cheap saddle soap are ultimately as good as any expensive solution.
Storing a belt, meanwhile, is a simple enough task. You can purchase a decent belt hanger for under $10, and these allow you to hang several belts in your closet, keeping them straight and free of creases. If you want an even cheaper solution, it’s easy enough to bend a common metal hanger into an S shape to create a similar storage device. And, should you prefer simplicity above all else, you can always keep your belts rolled up neatly in a draw with other soft items of clothing.
Types of Belts you should own and When to Wear
You might be asking yourself, well, with so many types of belts on offer, just how many belts should a man own? The answer to this is very simple: you should cover the basics with one black dress belt, one brown dress belt, and a couple of casual options like a suede belt, canvas belt, or woven leather belt.
Black dress belts are to be worn with evening wear, tuxedos, and other all-black or dark tone suits. They also provide a great contrast to white trousers or light chinos, so just pair the buckle colour with your accents and metals, and you’re set. Meanwhile, a brown dress belt is an excellent choice for navy and blue suits and light blue shirts, and of course, a perfect pairing if you’re wearing brown brogues – though make sure to coordinate the shades of your brown accents. Also, bear in mind that a well-fitting suit doesn’t necessarily need a belt at all – it should be a matter of adding some flair rather than just keeping your trousers up.
If you’re going for a more casual look, then a canvas belt can work great in summer, especially if you pair a light tan or khaki canvas with beige cotton trousers and a billowy oxford shirt. This kind of easy look has a relaxed charm, though if you want something a tad smarter, you could always go for a suede belt matched up with suede Chelsea boots or casual sneakers. If you’re wearing jeans, meanwhile, practically anything goes. It’s especially fun to go for a simple jeans and t-shirt combo, with a statement western belt buckle or similar plate buckle adding some standout flair to the outfit.
If you feel you’re just about ready to pick out a selection of belts for your burgeoning wardrobe, then you’ll want to know where to find the best. Regarding high-quality belts on a reasonable budget, it’s a good idea to check out typical men’s fashion brands like J Crew, Banana Republic, Gap, Levi’s, and Tanner Goods. You’ll find great belts at all of these retailers, including both dress and casual options, with various buckle types and strap materials.
If you’re going for something a little more special for a formal occasion, Cole Haan is a great first stop. Equus is also well-known for its formal belts, as are Aspinal of London, R. M. Williams, and Mr. Porter. Allen Edmonds has a wide variety of dress belts on offer, including various leather textures and colours. Diesel, meanwhile, is a great stop for statement pieces, along with sturdy, masculine designs.
When you get to the designer end of the spectrum, things start to get very pricy. Italian luxury brands like Bottega Veneta, Versace, Ermenegildo Zegna, and the cream of the crop Gucci are known worldwide for their hand-crafted leatherwork and gorgeous belt collections. The Gucci logo belt is perhaps the most famous of all time and retails for around $500 – though they also have a wide range of consumer belts on offer at fairly reasonable prices. Still, seeing as a good belt is the key to a great outfit, a little investment never hurts!