Belts are one of those accessories that we really just need. Trousers off the shelf simply don’t fit perfectly, hardly ever. Therefore it’s not a choice unless you can afford bespoke everything and thus be able to affix side adjusters or brace loops (yet still needing another accessory to keep the trousers up!). And unless you are sticking to black calf or dark brown shoes, it is not always clear on what belt to wear with your outfit, whether it be dressy or casual. Therefore, I thought that we could take a look at a few rules on what belts to wear with what suits, with both do’s and don’ts.
For the sake of argument let’s break down the wearing of belts into three categories: 1. Dress, 2. Dress Casual, and 3. Casual i.e. jeans/denim wear. And within each section will be the sub-sections of 1. Matching, 2. Complementing, and 3. Contrasting
And before I get into the below, allow me to say that any publication or person claiming that your belt MUST match your shoes (without exception), doesn’t have a clue about style.
For this rule let’s assume that we are referring to wearing suits to work or for business related functions etc
Matching – If you are wearing black shoes, you should have a black belt. Same goes for dark brown. But what about other colors, like Burgundy or Tan? Well in my personal opinion, I do not think that the eyes should be drawn to so many separating parts of the outfit/body. It’s too distracting/busy and not often elegant. Usually the places to go wild are the socks (in dress attire it is sometimes hard to go bold on shoes), tie or maybe pocket square. These being the more subtle of accessories (i.e. not always super noticeable).
Now for belts, if you decide to go bold on your shoes, I believe that in fact you should not match your belt as it will become too much for the eyes to handle. A blue suit with tan shoes and belt is just overboard. It screams out, ‘look at me.’ But when wanting to be elegant and dressy, we never want our outfit to scream but rather subtly attract through tasteful choice parings.
Complementing – For colors of shoes that are more daring, I tend to then complement my belt to my trouser or the edging of my shoes. For example if I am wearing a navy suit with burgundy shoes, I will either wear a navy leather/suede belt or a dark brown belt that should complement the edging of my shoes’ sole. Therefore, I do not draw attention to my waist but yet allow people to focus on my shoes (which is what I want them to!). On the contrary, if you are wearing a suit that you wouldn’t easily find a dress belt color (i.e. grey), then I would match the edging of the sole every time i.e. grey suit, tan shoes, brown belt (leather or suede) to complement the tan but not draw attention.
Contrasting – When wearing a suit, I wouldn’t personally ever contrast again my shoes, but if you want to go bold in your belt, make sure the rest of your outfit is subdued. For example, navy suit with dark brown shoes but you want to wear a gold museum belt for a little flair. This way your shoes are subtle and what people are being drawn-to is your belt only and not several parts of your outfit. I do not recommend this rule so much for dress wear but it can be done if done right.
For this rule, let us assume that we are wearing trousers like chinos/flannels etc, with a button up oxford shirt (or smart polo) and with or without a contrasting jacket. For example, tan chinos/navy cotton jacket.
Matching – Because the trouser and jacket are not uniform in color, matching bolder colors becomes more acceptable, not only for the fact that you are most likely not wearing this outfit at your law firm but also because it already is an outfit made with many colors and therefore matching a tan belt to shoe, while wearing beige colored chinos and brown/beige houndstooth jacket is far less noticeable than doing the same thing on a blue suit. I would still hesitate gravitating to the more less-normal and bold colors like green and purple but if you are going to match bold colors, like green, use a braided belt instead as the material/design of the belt will automatically soften the look. The same goes for suede, as the texture of it not only has a softer pantone color but also the softer texture dulls the boldness of the color therefore making it easier to match bolder colors without going overboard.
Complementing – This is probably the realm that I live in most as I wear a lot of chinos and bold color shoes, but won’t match my belt and wear a lot of braided belts. A beige, dark brown, or navy braided belt will take you far in this sector as either one will complement your trouser (i.e. beige with beige chinos, dark brown for olives/greys/browns and navy for blues/greys etc) and allow you to wear nearly any color shoe you want without drawing to much attention to your waist and keeping your outfit elegantly complementing with a bit of flair in your shoes and maybe pocket square.
Contrasting – This, in my opinion, is the best time to contrast as when we wear more earth-toned trousers, they are easier to strongly contrast again (as well as your shoe) and still look good. But I believe that as always, this works better with softer textured (i.e. not shiny) belts like suede and braided. For example, wearing a burgundy or green braided belt on top of beige chinos and a mid brown leather brogue (or loafer) and a soft white (or light blue, think linens) shirt with navy jacket (in a casual cloth like cotton or hopsack) could be a great look. With the smart casual outfit you have far more options to be bold in your colors and not look like you are going overboard. But even though things might be contrasting doesn’t mean they are not complementary. For example, green braided belt with leather tips, beige chinos and brown shoes is contrasting yet complementary at the same time. But navy chinos, brown shoes and yellow braided belt is not, so be careful of going too contrasting.
Let’s assume that for this rule we are simply speaking of wearing jeans/denim.
Matching – When it comes to wearing jeans, I do not believe that calf leathers should be matched. A calfskin belt, for me, is more on the dressy side so if you have black leather shoes and a belt it looks too formal for a casual look. But if you are wearing black shoes, I would wear a black braided belt or maybe suede. But if having to match, which I don’t recommend, steer towards using suedes and or more casual belts. I personally always wear a navy braided belt with jeans.
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Complementing – Again this is the realm I live in for the most part. I tend to always wear either a navy suede or braided belt which complements my jeans and then allows me to wear whatever color of shoe that I want. Of course, historically, ‘jean belts’ were always thicker brown leather ones with larger buckles but for the sake of this post and the use of smart shoes (I would never wear said belt with a dress shoe), we will assume that we are referring to the more ‘smart’ type of belt, as found in this post. You can’t go wrong when complementing your belt to your jean. It’s subtle and doesn’t make you look ostentatious, which is always a good thing!
Contrasting – While I personally believe that contrasting belts/shoes is best left done on chino type trousers, the fact that jeans/denim are more on the casual side of things, then a bit of contrast cannot be wrong if done correctly. Contrasting is always about being complementing in your contrasting so just remember that and pair like colors together. Don’t wear a red braided belt with green shoes. Christmas colors should be left for that time of year and only in decoration. Keep the contrast subtle and then you can’t go too wrong!
Remember that belts are an accessory. They are meant to be an elegant complement to your outfit. They should never be the main focus, like horrific designer belts with massive emblematic buckles that just scream out ‘look at me, I need so muc attention.’ Don’t be that guy, it’s never cool. Be subtle and elegant with your belt choices.
Some pics below for inspiration. All belts found at www.theshoesnob.com