Suspended in Time

Napolean Bonaparte's career had its ups and downs--from the battles of Austerlitz to Waterloo--but this never affected his wardrobe. His pants in particular.

Thanks to tailor-made suspenders, his britches always maintained their proper imperial height.

The French called them bretelles ; the English, braces , and America's New Englanders named them suspenders .

Invented in 1787, suspenders accommodated men who wore loose, high-up-the-waist trousers then fashion. And they have maintained a 200-year tradition of upholding male dignity, from the world's battlefields to its corporate boardrooms.

During their 19th-Century heyday, suspenders were given as gifts. England's Queen Victoria presented a pair to her friend and prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli.

The style began to wane shortly after the world marched into our century. When the United States entered World War I, American doughboys found their suspenders too entangling--quite literally--in the muddy trenches of France. The U.S. Army nixed the shoulder straps in favor of the less awkward belt.

Today, suspenders have seen something of a comeback, from the well-tailored, lean and mean bond buyers of Wall Street, to the Skinheads of the much meaner streets.

As a general rule, lanky men are advised not to wear them because the suspender's long straps make them appear taller. However, it's for precisely this reasaon that men of smaller physical stature benefit from wearing them. Men of great girth appear slimmer by the suspenders' strong vertical lines that, unlike belts, draw the eye's attention away from the bearer's ample meridian.

In her book "Dress for Excellence," Lois Fenton opines that those buying suspenders for the first time should start with three basic colors: burgundy, navy and camel. It's suggested that you avoid the clip-on variety (too tacky). If possible, purchase trousers with buttons attached inside the waistband, or a tailor can sew them on for a nominal fee. Suspenders' buttonhole straps (or paddles ) are best when made of leather or silk.

The average off-the-rack cost varies ($15-$80), but those less strapped for cash may choose custom-made crocodile suspenders from New York's specialty shop Peter Elliot (around $250).

Trafalgar Ltd. of Norwalk, Conn., offers high-end, limited edition reproductions manufactured on 100-year-old European looms. Founder Marley Hodgson is a member in good standing with the International Society of Brace Collectors.

Trafalgar Ltd. sells reproductions of suspenders owned by history's famous men. One offered by the company includes those worn by Emperor Napoleon.

One wonders if in the score of oil paintings depicting the unformed Bonaparte--his right hand thrust in his coat--he is fingering the embroidered bumblebees of his custom-made suspenders.

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