GIRDLE (O. Eng. gyrdel, from gyrdan, to gird; cf. Ger. Gürtel, Dutch gordel, from gürten and gorden; “gird” and its doublet “girth” together with the other Teutonic cognates have been referred by some to the root ghar—to seize, enclose, seen in Gr. χείρ, hand, Lat. hortus, garden, and also English yard, garden, garth, &c.), a band of leather or other material worn round the waist, either to confine the loose and flowing outer robes so as to allow freedom of movement, or to fasten and support the garments of the wearer. Among the Romans it was used to confine the tunica, and it formed part of the dress of the soldier; when a man quitted military service he was said, cingulum deponere, to lay aside the girdle. Money being carried in the girdle, zonam perdere signified to lose one’s purse, and, among the Greeks, to cut the girdle was to rob a man of his money.
Girdles and girdle-buckles are not often found in Gallo-Roman graves, but in the graves of Franks and Burgundians they are constantly present, often ornamented with bosses of silver or bronze, chased or inlaid. Sidonius Apollinaris speaks of the Franks as belted round the waist, and Gregory of Tours in the 6th century says that a dagger was carried in the Frankish girdle.
In the Anglo-Saxon dress the girdle makes an unimportant figure, and the Norman knights, as a rule, wore their belts under their hauberks. After the Conquest, however, the artificers gave more attention to a piece whose buckle and tongue invited the work of the goldsmith. Girdles of varying richness are seen on most of the western medieval effigies. That of Queen Berengaria lets the long pendant hang below the knee, following a fashion which frequently reappears.
In the latter part of the 13th century the knight’s surcoat is girdled with a narrow cord at the waist, while the great belt, which had become the pride of the well-equipped cavalier, loops across the hips carrying the heavy sword aslant over the thighs or somewhat to the left of the wearer.
But it is in the second half of the following century that the knightly belt takes its most splendid form. Under the year 1356 the continuator of the chronicle of Nangis notes that the increase of jewelled belts had mightily enhanced the price of pearls. The belt is then worn, as a rule, girdling the hips at some distance below the waist, being probably supported by hooks as is the belt of a modern infantry soldier. The end of the belt, after being drawn through the buckle, is knotted or caught up after the fashion of the tang of the Garter. The waist girdle either disappears from sight or as a narrow and ornamented strap is worn diagonally to help in the support of the belt. A mass of beautiful ornament covers the whole belt, commonly seen as an unbroken line of bosses enriched with curiously worked roundels or lozenges which, when the loose strap-end is abandoned, meet in a splendid morse or clasp on which the enameller and jeweller had wrought their best. About 1420 this fashion tends to disappear, the loose tabards worn over armour in the jousting-yard hindering its display. The belt never regains its importance as an ornament, and, at the beginning of the 16th century, sword and dagger are sometimes seen hanging at the knight’s sides without visible support.
In civil dress the magnificent belt of the 14th century is worn by men of rank over the hips of the tight short-skirted coat, and in that century and in the 15th and 16th there are sumptuary laws to check the extravagance of rich girdles worn by men and women whose humble station made them unseemly. Even priests must be rebuked for their silver girdles with baselards hanging from them. Purses, daggers, keys, penners and inkhorns, beads and even books, dangled from girdles in the 15th and early 16th centuries. Afterwards the girdle goes on as a mere strap for holding up the clothing or as a sword-belt. At the Restoration men contrasted the fashion of the court, a light rapier hung from a broad shoulder-belt, with the fashion of the countryside, where a heavy weapon was supported by a narrow waistbelt. Soon afterwards both fashions disappeared. Sword-hangers were concealed by the skirt, and the belt, save in certain military and sporting costumes, has no more been in sight in England. Even as a support for breeches or trousers, the use of braces has gradually supplanted the girdle during the past century.
In most of those parts of the Continent—Brittany, for example—where the peasantry maintains old fashions in clothing, the belt or girdle is still an important part of the clothing. Italian non-commissioned officers find that the Sicilian recruit’s main objection to the first bath of his life-time lies in the fact that he must lay down the cherished belt which carries his few valuables. With the Circassian the belt still buckles on an arsenal of pistols and knives.
Folklore and ancient custom are much concerned with the girdle. Bankrupts at one time put it off in open court; French law refused courtesans the right to wear it; Saint Guthlac casts out devils by buckling his girdle round a possessed man; an earl is “a belted earl” since the days when the putting on of a girdle was part of the ceremony of his creation; and fairy tales of half the nations deal with girdles which give invisibility to the wearer. (O. Ba.)