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Friday, October 28, 2011

Middles (13)—Belt Buckles

[a] Fastened RF
I can't stop thinking about Texas governor Rick Perry. It's not his debate performances, his views on gun control ("I'm for it; use both hands"), or his position on health care. No, it's his belt. There is just something about a man with a belt buckle the size of a watermelon that rivets me. I am appalled, but—like a traffic accident—I can't manage to look away.

So this got me thinking. What, exactly, is it with belt buckles among a certain cross-section of the American male population? And it is not only men, either, as we'll discuss soon enough. For now, though, let's focus (how could we do otherwise as they shine upon us?) on gendered buckles, and a certain kind of regional identification.

Yes, regional. You might have noticed that belt buckles tend to be more the size of a quarter, with room for eyelet and hook, in most parts of the country. Inconspicuous—just holding up the ol' pants. You don't need a hubcap under your stomach to hold your pants
on, if you hadn't noticed. No, something else seems to be going on with the oversize belt buckle. Holding up pants is functional. Such "functionality" can be very expensive, and tailored to exacting specifications (don't get me wrong, GQ readers). But the big belt buckle fairly shouts out to the teeming throngs "notice me."

[b] Sensible RF
It's difficult not to. Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney don't have big, shiny buckles (or boots). Michelle Bachman might have a sensible strap of some kind, but it matches the outfit. Herman Cain just holds up his pants inconspicuously, as do Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. But when Rick Perry walks into the room, the buckle shines like a disco ball hovering about groin-high. Lecterns are a godsend—as are tables and chairs—for those of us who would rather engage the volley of ideas and recriminations than gaze beltward. And have you ever tried to read a "living" belt buckle? It ain't easy, pardner.
***  ***
Enough of Perry and politics, though. The buckle is bigger, culturally, than even a three-term governor on a run for president. Any anthropologist of the American prairie (from Saskatoon to Corpus Christi) knows all about buckles. You can win them at rodeos, and they often combine to form a mixture of personal statement and regional allegiance. They are not, for the most part (Attention: Governor Perry) to be worn with suits. On the other hand, George Strait has made quite a career out of looking just right with pressed jeans, boots, a neat button-down shirt, and the requisite hat (at the "correct" angle that shows he is not a carpetbagging Texas wannabe from the east coast).
[c] Gender RF
And we will end this little set of belted musings by returning to the gendering of belt and buckle. In rodeo culture, the buckle is most definitely a female accoutrement, as well. If you win the calf-roping competition, you might well receive a buckle instead of a trophy or plaque, whether your name is Linda or Tom. There is even a country song or two invoking the cultural charm of "girls" with belt buckles. This is not an easy matter, and is packed with potential for cultural and historical analysis. We may well have to return in future posts to the culture of fashion and the fashioning of accessories.

[d] Kula PD
For now, though, I will just leave you with a page of vintage buckles for you to ponder. I certainly hope that a few of the anthropology students among you will see that these vintage buckles bear an uncanny resemblance—in their functionality and appearance—to the arm bands, necklaces, and shells at the heart of the kula ring in the Trobriand Islands. Ah, to own the buckle of a famous Texan, to treasure it for a few years, and then to pass it on. If you can't see the similarity between the neck band to the right and big ol' belt buckles, you must not be paying attention. This is anthropology, people, and we might well get started on an ethnographic investigation that will take us from Abilene to Houston, and Texarkana all of the way to El Paso—exchanging buckles all of the way in a torrid, cultural fit of display, status, and, well, fashion. Get your IRB permissions ready, because we are going on a journey.


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