English School Uniform Garments: The Snake Belt
Other iems like the snake belt seem to have been oprimatily worn in England. Some like the snake belt have almost disappeared. The so-called 'snake-belt' was at one time an extremely common item of English (and indeed of British) school uniform, although it tended to be worn on many other occasions too as part of regular boyswear. It consisted of an elasticated strip, fastened at the front with an S-shaped metal hook-buckle fashioned as a snake; it was, obviously, this feature of the belt which gave it its popular name.
The so-called 'snake-belt' was at one time an extremely common item of English (and indeed of British) school uniform, although it tended to be worn on many other occasions too as part of regular boyswear. It consisted of an elasticated strip, fastened at the front with an S-shaped metal hook-buckle fashioned as a snake; it was, obviously, this feature of the belt which gave it its popular name. A metal slide, together with a loop in the belt, enabled it to be adjusted to an individual boy's waist far more sensitively than could be done with the usual tang and series of holes and also, of course, allowed its length to be increased as a boy grew. The slide and loop arrangement also ensured that there was no long end left dangling - an important matter of safety during the frequent rough-and-tumble of boy life. Sometimes, but not always, a flap was provided behind the snake-buckle. Boys' short and long trousers were provided with loops through which the belt could be threaded.
We are not sure precisely when the snake belt first appeared or who invented it. It was clearly being worn by the 1860s, but we are not sure that it was a specifically school style. Another portrait shows three brothers wearing tunics with snake belts over them. We do not know if these were school outfits. The earliest we note the snake belt in the photographic record was belts worn with tunic suits by two Glasgow brothers in 1863. An Origin in Sportswear
Most items of what has come to be regarded as 'traditional' English/British school uniform were borrowed from sportswear of the late 19th or early 20th century and in this respect the snake-belt is no exception, for it was in sportswear that this distinctive item of dress first appeared. In 1888 the famous English cricketer W. G. Grace declared that 'braces ['suspenders' in America] are not worn when playing cricket': belts, he considered, were less restrictive of movement. [Cunnington and Mansfield, p. 31.] The snake-belt was a favourite form. The early examples were made from silk and were often advertised as 'cricket and lawn tennis belts', as in a catalogue of 1907: 'ORDINARY CRICKET AND LAWN TENNIS BELTS / Silk, striped colours fitted with snake buckles, each 2/6 / plain ... 2/0'. [Aldbrugham, p. 994.] The sums of money are in the British pre-decimal coinage and stand for two shillings and six pence and two shillings respectively: 12.5p and 10p in modern British currency). As the advertisement states, they were available in a single colour ('plain') or in stripes: where there were stripes they consisted of two outer ones in one colour and a central one in a contrasting colour. The different colours meant that sporting clubs - cricket clubs, for example - could obtain them in their own club colours. Not surprisingly, schoolboys would wear them in school colours with cricket flannels when playing in school cricket matches. From there they were adopted as part of school uniform wear.
Their availability in a wide range of single or twinned colours meant that they could be readily obtained in school colours to match those of blazer, school cap, tie, and badge. The travel writer Eric Newby recalls visits to the Boys' Shop at the world-famous Harrod's in London in the 1920s and '30s to be kitted out with, amongst other items of school uniform, 'flannel shorts supported by belts striped in the school colours with snake-head buckles. [A Traveller's Life, p. 44.] Occasionally, they might be compulsory but more often they were optional. At my own schools in Luton, Beds. they were not compulsory but many boys wore them. At Hart Hill Primary School, which introduced a school uniform during my time as a pupil there, the snake-belt had two brown stripes and a central yellow stripe. At Luton Grammar School, where I started in 1957, the belt had two red stripes and a central yellow stripe. The secondary school which my elder brother attended had two dark blue stripes and a central pale blue stripe. Those worn by other boys whom I knew in the town had two black stripes with a central red or a central yellow stripe, two maroon stripes with a central grey or a central white stripe, and two green stripes with a central yellow stripe. But other combinations were also available.
Out of school uniform, a boy would still often support his trousers with such a belt, usually his school one. You could, however, obtain them in with two black stripes and a central white stripe: since black and white were the colours of the Luton Town Football Club, some boys in my home town wore a snake-belt with those colours when going to matches on Saturday afternoons. They might also wear them on other occasions out of school in order to declare their allegiance to the local football team.
Changes in the 1930s
At first, snake-belts had been made quite wide - 1.75 inches (44 mm) - and occasionally they incorporated two snake-buckles, one above the other, as in an early 20th-century postcard-size photograph in my possession. This width was not really suitable for boys, especially smaller ones; the belts also had insufficient elasticity and tended to become loose. In the 1930s the width was reduced to 1.25 inches (32 mm) whilst the introduction of artificial fibres gave a lighter webbing with greater elasticity and durability: 'the result was a better belt with a longer life and much neater appearance. [Guppy, p. 59.]
The later, improved version was, as I recall from my own schooldays, very comfortable to wear, since it would stretch as necessary with a boy's movements during play - the very reason for their introduction into games such as cricket and tennis. The only discomfort came if the metal slide got twisted, as could happen occasionally: 'One glance was enough to reveal the cause of the trouble,' relates Anthony Buckeridge in one of his Jennings stories: '"Yes, I see what it is," she said. "A clear case of twisted-belt-buckle-itis." '"Wow! That sounds bad," Jennings exclaimed. "Shall I have to see the doctor, Matron?"
'"Oh, no, it's not serious." She straightened out the twisted belt and slackened the adjustable buckle [that is, the metal slide] at the back, which had ridden up over the waistband of his shorts' (According to Jennings, London and Glasgow, 1954, 247). They were worn with both short and long trousers; indeed, in conformity with changed times, the more recent revision of the Jennings story alters 'shorts' to 'trousers' (According to Jennings, revised edition, Wendover, 1986, 182-3; paperback edition, London and Basingstoke, 1991, 196). Partly because of their comfort and partly, I suppose, because of their often bright colours, they were very popular amongst boys themselves: in the post-World War II Austerity era Ray Watkins regretted not having one because of continuing rationing, but eventually obtained one with some change from the purchase of a grey school shirt (Interview in 'Now the War is Over', BBC2 Television, repeat 23 July 1990). Sometimes girls might even envy the boys' possession of these distinctive items of clothing, as Dora Saint (writing as 'Miss Read') recalls (Times Remembered, paperback edition, Harmondsworth, 1987, 36).
Snake-Belt versus Braces
Braces (suspenders) were sometimes worn with school uniform and both short and long trousers were provided with braces-buttons as well as belt-loops. John Mortimer amusingly recalls his preparatory school headmaster vacillating over the issue of braces versus the snake-belt: '... you are round-shouldered through the wearing of braces! Unbutton your braces and cast them from you. Each boy to acquire a dark-blue elastic belt with a snake-buckle, to be slotted neatly into the loops provided at the top of school shorts.' But a little later he fulminates: 'Why are you an offence to the eyes, all tied up like parcels? I say unto you, there will be no more belts or the wearing thereof. Abandon belts! Each boy to equip himself with a decent pair of sturdy elastic braces!' (Clinging to the Wreckage: a Part of Life, London, 1982, paperback edition, Harmondsworth, 1983, 31-32)
In their heyday, from the 1930s through to the 1960s, snake-belts were easily available from a large number of shops and stores and even from market stalls which sold boyswear. Official school outfitters stocked them in the colours of local schools, but most colour combinations - certainly the brown and yellow of my primary school and the red and yellow of my grammar school - were available at the other outlets, usually at less cost, although they were inexpensive items wherever they were purchased - certainly when compared with leather belts.
The Situation Today
The snake-belt is seen much less often these days, although they can sometimes be found. They are sometimes even thinner, being about 1 inch (25 mm) in width. Occasionally too trousers for smaller boys will have a sort of false version, consisting of just the two ends, sewn to the sides of the trousers and fastening in front with the snake-buckle. The trousers have elasticated backs and are self-supporting so that the 'belts' are decorative rather than functional.
Aldbrugham, Alison. "Introduction", Yesterday's Shopping: the Army and Navy Stores Catalogue, 1907, (Newton Abbot, 1969).
Cunnington, Phillis and Alan Mansfield, English Costume for Sports and Outdoor Activities, London, 1969).
Guppy, Alice. Children's Clothes 1939-1970: The Advent of Fashion (Poole, 1978).
Smith, Terence Paul. Terence submitted the first draft of this page.
A Traveller's Life (paperback edition, London, 1983).
In the era before low slung jeans every boy in the land would have had his trousers held up by these elasticated belts with traditional metal snake fastening.
We have now had them remade in adult sizes so they are both practical and nostalgic.
The adult belts will adjust from 22" to 42" waist and are 1 1/8" wide
Plain and striped colourways.
Actual colours may vary slightly from the images
Made in England and sent in presentation box so an ideal gift for the overgrown schoolboy..