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What Does It Mean to Wear "Belt and Suspenders"?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term “belt and suspenders” is an example of a metaphorical idiom; the meaning is that a person who “wears belt and suspenders” is very cautious. The idea is that a belt holds up a person’s pants, and that suspenders achieve same task. Using both, therefore, is seen as superfluous and unusual, leading to the use of the figurative phrase to describe someone who seems obsessed with safety, or overly careful about something.

This idiomatic phrasing varies between different English-speaking societies. The British version of this phrase is “belt and braces.” The American version, “belt and suspenders,” references a garment accessory that was once popular within the country, not only as a functional accessory for holding up pants, but more recently as something of a novelty fashion item. For example, restaurants and other businesses may use suspenders as part of the uniform, as part of visual “branding.”

Word experts trace the origin of the phrase to the mid 1900s. As suspenders become more and more obsolete in American society, this phrase is heard less and less. Today, it is not a very usual part of the language, but rather, something that may appear in older printed text, or perhaps with certain popular figures who might use them as a sort of trademark for their image.

Another way to refer to the idiomatic phrase “using belt and suspenders,” is the idea of “double insurance.” Those who are referring to this kind of concept will often use more technical language, such as “redundant safety measures.” An important difference is that, while “belt and suspenders” has the connotation of being superfluous, redundant safety measures are often a deliberate part of engineering, and a very important part of keeping individuals safe within a certain field or industry.

In modern times, government regulators in many countries around the world have been entrusted with enforcing practical and sometimes redundant safety measures. Consequently, English speakers and writers may not use the phrase very much anymore because a growing focus on safety has made that topic one that is associated with a positive connotation in the modern mind. Since the idiomatic phrase tends to express derision for excessive precautions, it may be less relevant today than it was in the past; of course, today’s elaborate safety systems may still inspire contempt in some individuals, who, in turn, might favor this term.

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Discussion Comments
By SarahSon — On Dec 22, 2011

Even though I had some of the typical teenage problems with my parents, I always realized how fortunate I was.

I had a couple of friends who had parents that raised their kids by this 'suspenders and belt' idiom.

I can understand being concerned and cautious, but also think it can be taken too far. They always imagined the worse and because of that, they were hardly ever allowed to do anything.

One of them pretty much turned out to be just like them. The other one was just the opposite, and when given the chance to be on his own, was very reckless and crazy.

To me this shows there needs to be a balance in all things. It doesn't hurt to cautiously weigh your options, but you also have to risk a little to live a little.

By LisaLou — On Dec 21, 2011

When young kids hear this expression today, they might have a hard time imagining what a pair of suspenders actually looks like.

This is an easy thing for me to picture in my mind, as I don't think I ever saw my grandpa without his red suspenders on.

This phrase also fit their lifestyle in many ways, but especially when it came to living on credit.

My grandparents would not buy anything they could not pay cash for. For many people that seems like a very cautious way to live, but for them it just made plain sense.

It seems like some tough financial situations could have been avoided if more people lived their life with that kind of cautious, common sense.

By StarJo — On Dec 21, 2011

@orangey03 – That shiny scarecrow garden must have been a sight to see! I think that's a humorous example of wearing a belt and suspenders. The neighbors probably thought it was totally rational, and they probably didn't have problems with birds anymore.

This reminds me of my neighbor and her efforts to keep the neighborhood dogs from urinating on her flowers. She was great at growing beautiful flowers, but dog urine can damage them. After her makeshift fence of string and sticks failed to keep them away, she tried something that could not fail.

She planted cacti all around her garden. She got the prickliest kind she could find and left no spot open for the dogs to walk through. She also sprayed dog repellant around the garden each morning.

I know this made it harder for her to tend to her flowers, but it worked. None of the dogs were willing to jump the cacti just to pee on the plants. The cacti alone would have worked fine, but the repellant was her belt to the suspenders she already had in place.

By OeKc05 — On Dec 20, 2011

I am enrolled in a clinical trial to test a relatively new drug to treat kidney disease. While in this study, I have to use two forms of birth control. The nurse who informed me of this was an older lady, and she referred to it as “wearing a belt and suspenders.”

The effects of the drug on a fetus are not known, and it could be dangerous for both me and the baby if I were to get pregnant while on the drug. So, I have no problem taking the extra precaution, and neither does my husband.

This is one instance in which being super cautious can be a good thing. I'm pretty lax in most areas of my life, but in serious situations like this, I take extra care to prevent tragedy.

By lighth0se33 — On Dec 20, 2011

My dad definitely fits this expression. He takes so much forethought that he can hardly enjoy life.

Every time we go somewhere, even if it is just to a store, he brings bottled water and the GPS in case there is road work with a detour. If we go somewhere that is a few hours away, he checks the map frequently, even though we have the GPS set to our destination.

He always wants to know what mile marker we are at, and he looks at the map to see the landmarks nearby. This would be perfectly normal, except that we have taken this same trip twenty times before, and he should be comfortable with it by now.

I tell him that he puts his mental belt and suspenders on before every trip. He just smiles, because he knows how he is.

By orangey03 — On Dec 19, 2011

My grandparents grew up in the days when wearing actual suspenders was common, so they used this phrase quite a bit. They were somewhat laid back, and they often viewed those people who took extra precautions as paranoid.

I remember that they once said their neighbors were wearing belts and suspenders when they put up several scarecrows and several shiny objects that flashed in the sun as they moved around in a small section of their vegetable garden. They really wanted to scare the birds away from their crops, and they went overboard to do it.

I always thought that the expression was kind of funny. It made me picture a nerd with his pants hiked up above his waist with a tight belt and suspenders.

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