Ode to a Ribbon Belt
While I cannot for the life of me recall the first time I drank a beer, ate a cornichon, or received that way-too-early first piece of mail from AARP, I most certainly do remember my first grosgrain ribbon belt.
The year was 1979, and I was in the overheated playroom of a fraternity house in Charlottesville, Virginia, bouncing white ping-pong balls into clear plastic cups of beer. My opponent was shirtless and wearing a pair of cut-off khaki shorts and topsiders. Around his waist was wrapped a pink and green ribbon belt. Beneath his shorts, nothing. I could tell.
The boys where I grew up didn’t wear belts such as these. They preferred leather Western-inspired ones with big bulky Confederate flag or marijuana leaf belt buckles. Colored ribbons? Never.
It goes without saying that I lost the beer pong match. Too many distractions. But the very next day, I purchased an orange and blue striped grosgrain ribbon belt, which became an indispensable piece of my collegiate wardrobe for the next four years.
Today, I can count a dozen ribbon belts in my collection: nine are striped, two are solid, and one is patterned. The oldest one is a faded and slightly tattered red and blue striped number that I bought when I first moved to Washington twenty-four years ago. I wouldn’t dream of replacing it. Not yet. The patina is perfect.
Grosgrain, you might be wondering, is a closely-woven, sturdy, silk fabric with narrow horizontal ribs and a dull sheen. Not to be confused with satin! It comes in a large variety of colors and patterns. In addition to belts, it’s also used to make hats, bows, and to suspend military medals and honors. When properly cared for, the ribbon can last a long time.
Despite the fact that the fabric has been produced in this country since the early 1800s, a good grosgrain ribbon belt is hard to find. Over the last thirty years, I’ve purchased my share of inferior ones. Some were too flimsy. A few weren’t stitched well. Others had cheap belt rings. One, I’m ashamed to admit, was made of polyester.
Pursuit of the perfect ribbon belt even led me to New York’s “ribbon district,” a strip of specialty shops on West 36th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. There I discovered the most exquisite powder blue and cream striped grosgrain ribbon, displayed in a museum-like ambiance. Alas, it never encircled my waist. I failed miserably as a seamstress, and the ribbon lays wrinkled and shoved into the back of my top dresser drawer.
Now I just buy ‘em. A mere twenty-nine dollars will purchase you the best ribbon belt in America at J Press, the ultimate preppy haberdasher favored by men who feel Brooks Brothers is too conservative. Their belts have the right heft, solid brass rings, and come in a nice variety of colors. Ralph Lauren is a distant second; their stock is somewhat inconsistent. Vineyard Vines sells them too, but I think they’re a tad too precious.
It’s a good time to try a ribbon belt, if you are so inclined. This is, after all, the thirty-year anniversary of the Preppy Handbook, which turned a generation of Americans onto the virtues of loafers and madras. It’s being updated later this year, in case you haven’t heard and would like to join me on the advance notification list. You’ll want to be ahead of the pack.
Seriously though, a ribbon belt is a jaunty, summertime look. Sure there’s a hint of dandy, but there’s also something decidedly masculine, rakish even, about a colorful ribbon belt and a pair of crisp shorts. Make sure to select contrasting colors rather than trying to match your shirt and shorts. Yes, you can mix stripes with stripes and stripes with checks so long as the colors work together.
Worn properly, a ribbon belt ought to have a decent sized tail after it’s looped through the rings. Buy larger than you would a dress belt. What to do with the extra inches? I say slide it in a belt loop. Others prefer a more informal look and wrap the tail around the belt itself. Let it dangle at your own risk.
Fashion aside, I think of the grosgrain ribbon belt as my own elixir of youth, so to speak. How many things can you wear at age fifty that transport you back to when you were age twenty? Without looking silly? Or worrying about your waistline? Forget those trendy antioxidant vodka cocktails infused with pomegranates, blueberries, acai, and such. Hand me a pink and green ribbon belt.
Reach Rich Barnett and read more of his stories on Rehoboth at www.rehobothwithrich.blogspot.com.