Let’s dispatch with the nomenclature. Braces is British English for the adjustable straps that hold up trousers; suspenders is American English for the same, or, and this where some confusion ensues, British English for small garters that hold up unelasticized hose; garter belts are largely unworn undergarments used as justification for the ownership of beautiful lingerie towers (we can cover the shapeless flannel pajamas that have supplanted their original appeal in another essay). For the sake of clarity and historical accuracy then: braces.
I have a good friend, a stylish fellow in his fashion-forward way, who was surprised to learn that braces are worn outside of formal wear. He seemed impressed when I unbuttoned the jacket of a fairly informal hopsack suit and revealed my own pair of Champagne colored barathea braces buttoned into my trousers. I think this illustrates the problem: given the choices available for resisting gravity, braces have somehow shed their association with everyday utility while retaining a degree of special event magnificence. That the newest iteration of James Bond has proudly displayed his white moiré braces on a number of tuxedoed occasions affirms the misapprehension for many.
This is strange; to my mind, braces are, if anything, the utilitarian choice. If I had to dig a ditch, I would want to do it in a roomy pair of trousers that hung from my shoulders. I’m in good company. It was Ben Franklin who first stipulated the fire department’s on-duty kit in Philadelphia, the lynchpin of which were sturdy, red braces. And notable men’s clothing writer and designer, Alan Flusser, traces braces to active duty uniforms of the French Revolution. For every image of an elegantly dressed man wearing braces that I run across, there are at least two of a laborer catching his breath beneath a more modest pair. If there is a common theme, I suppose it is this: on those occasions when trousers absolutely must stay up, men turn to braces.
In addition to stability, there is comfort to consider. Belts and side straps depend upon cinching the waistband above or below the hips—a sensation that can vary from tolerable to torture. Braces evenly distribute the weight of trousers over the shoulders, which even in the case of eighteen ounce whipcord, is barely noticeable. There is an additional benefit to the setup: because the waistband isn’t doing the lifting it can be left comfortably larger than the waist. The wearer moves freely, within rather than against his trousers. And then there is the meta-style aspect; once adjusted to the correct length, braced trousers are maintenance free, and the less time a man spends fiddling with his clothing, the better.
When braces do go wrong, it seems to be the fault of the trousers. Namely, too low a rise. I’m not persuaded trousers need to be explicitly cut to accommodate braces, but they do need a rise that brings the waistband up to the, well, waist. Worn with hip-hugging pants, braces acquire the look of costume, on par with those obsolete armbands used to gather excess shirt sleeve length. I’d go so far as to say, if braces are being worn for fashion rather than comfort, the effect instantly becomes disingenuous. The wearer might as well grow a handle bar mustache. I’m rarely surprised, then, that the latter often accompanies the former by those followers of niche fashion.