What object or practice do you employ on a regular basis that actually performs its function sub-optimally? Can’t think of anything?
Let’s go with a simpler question: How’s your belt working for you?
We wear belts primarily to keep our pants up. Simple enough. But almost every day I see some belt wearers adjusting their pants, re-tucking their shirts, and fidgeting with the tight leather contraption around their waists. In theory, a device created to counteract the downward force gravity exerts on pants should pull the pants upward—not inward, like a belt does. And we’ve invented something that does just that: suspenders. But for some reason, society has decided that belts should reign supreme, despite their suboptimal functionality and even potential health consequences. (For more on this, try googling “lateral femoral cutaneous nerve” and “meralgia paresthetica”).
In last week’s episode, Freakonomics Radio host Stephen Dubner leads a vendetta against the belt to explore how we become accustomed to practices that don’t make much sense, and why we continue to use common objects that don’t really work that well. He enlists the help of a medical doctor, a fashion historian, a museum curator, a physics instructor, an online belt retailer, and his Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt to get to the bottom of the belt question. How did the belt win?
Chloe Chapin, a fashion historian and professor at Reed College, explains the historical origins of the belt, which in fact preceded the invention and popular use of pants. Pants were invented by Eurasian Steppe horse riders in the Bronze Age, presumably because—in Chapin’s own words—”it just helps with the chafing” (9:05). People continued wearing tunics, togas, kilts, and other non-pant articles of clothing—many of which required belts—for a long time after that. Pants finally entered the western fashion lexicon in the early 19th century, but they were worn with suspenders until the post-World War I military fashion craze when belts became fashionable and symbols of strength and accomplishment.
Indeed, unlike belts, “suspenders have an image problem,” (7:04) according to Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Belts are more stylish, more mainstream, and more normative than suspenders. Suspenders are, for former physics teacher and current suspenders enthusiast Daniel Sefcik, more comfortable and more functional than belts. Freakonomics adeptly and effectively engages Steele and Sefcik in conversation with one another to evaluate the merits of both accessories, but on a broader level, to consider whether fashion is really about more than function.
On the latter question, Steele makes some good points. Functionality is relative to your size, occupation, daily routine, style, and preference. We use clothing as signals and symbols. Perhaps assessing the merits of suspenders vs. belts should rely less heavily on how they perform their function, because clothes—an especially accessories—are not necessarily primarily functional.
Toward the end of the episode, Freakonomics does what Freakonomics does best: it takes something lighthearted and quotidian and applies it to something else that has more serious implications. What are the consequences of using a suboptimal solution to a problem if the stakes are life and death?
A paper written by Steven Levitt and Joseph Doyle from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology determined (albeit controversially) that the safety benefit of a car seat relative to an adult seatbelt was minimal for children. Levitt and Dubner wrote this piece in the New York Times Magazine about their findings from analyzing data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) and two car-seat crash tests they commissioned. In terms of fatalities, they found that car seats didn’t help at all. In terms of injuries, car seats had a small advantage relative to adult seatbelts. But when compared to the hype and ubiquitousness of car seats, their actual safety is a mythology.
The applications of this week’s theme are numerous, and go far beyond what was mentioned within the episode’s 31:38 run time. Why do we do some of the things we do, even when we stop to think of it, it don’t make much sense? Why do we stop looking for better solutions to problems that already have a suboptimal one? And when, if ever, will suspenders have their time in the limelight?
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