In the first two episodes of the second season of Star Trek: Picard, Admiral Picard and his companions find themselves in a dark alternate timeline where a militaristic and xenophobic Confederacy of Earth has ventured into the galaxy on a mission of conquest instead of peaceful exploration. The change is reflected in the clothing worn by the main characters, shifting from the familiar colors of Starfleet uniforms to somber blacks and greys. General Picard’s black uniform also sports an additional accessory: a black Sam Browne military belt.
A Sam Browne is a belt supported by a narrow strap passing diagonally across the chest and over the right shoulder, usually worn by military officers or as a symbol of authority. The belt is named for General Samuel Browne, an officer in the British Indian Army, the military force of the British Empire in India. In a battle during the Indian Rebellion (1857-1858), Browne sustained a series of injuries, the most serious of which resulted in the loss of his left arm.(1) To compensate for his injury, Browne developed the belt that now bears his name. The diagonal strap is meant to steady the belt for carrying and drawing a sword, as such weapons were part of the standard uniform for British officers during that era. Drawing a sword from a scabbard can require the use of the non-dominant hand to steady the belt as the weapon is pulled free. The belt also had the effect of relieving some of the weight of the sword and other gear carried by officers such as a pistol by transferring some of the burden to the shoulders. As it was intended to compensate for a sword, the Sam Browne was worn only by officers.
Over time, other British officers in India adopted the belt and the use of the Sam Browne spread to other militaries. The popularity of the Sam Browne meant it eventually saw use in nonmilitary groups such as police and civilians who used the belt as a symbol of authority. Newspapers of the 1930s noted even movie ushers and garage station attendants wore the belt. The United States armed forces most prominent use of the belt was during World War I when American soldiers in Europe began wearing the Sam Browne in emulation of their British counterparts. General John Pershing appreciated the look of the Sam Browne and once he became Army Chief of Staff he ordered the use of the belt for all Army soldiers in 1921. While Americans dubbed it the “Liberty Belt” in Europe, Sam Browne remained the most used term. Due to wartime shortages and other factors, the use of the belt was removed from official uniforms during World War II. The belt was phased out of police use due to the risk of the chest strap being used against an officer in a struggle. Other reasons included changes in tastes and fashion, along with the price of the belt as uniform costs rose. (After all, Star Trek is a great example of how styles can both stay consistent and also change over time.)
This is not the only time Star Trek has used the Sam Browne to show the differences between the normal, progressive prime timeline and dark variations. In Yesterday’s Enterprise, a silver harness very similar to the Sam Browne belt makes an appearance on members of the crew in a more aggressive, desperate timeline where the Federation is losing a war against the Klingons. Adding to the more militaristic feel imparted by the belt, the Yesterday’s Enterprise uniforms also feature black accents along the cuffs and a higher collar.
Notably, the Star Trek: Enterprise Terran Empire uniforms of the Mirror Universe distinctly feature a Sam Browne belt for many of the major characters in that brutal reality. Discovery era Terran Empire uniforms evoke, if not actually physically replicate, the belt’s asymmetrical stripe across the chest (albeit right to left). Aside from the military connotations of the Sam Browne belt, asymmetry and “mirroring” appears to now be a recurring motif in Star Trek’s depiction of dark alternate futures and realities. In a sense, the skewed sharp angles of the belt, much like the brutalist angles of the Terran Empire, can represent a harsh society as well as a decisive turn towards a different future. Although to paraphrase Data quoting a line famously attributed to Sigmund Freud, sometimes a belt is just a belt.
(1) The Indian Rebellion has been known by several names.
References and further reading
- Police to Abandon Sam Browne Belts: Puttees Discarded, Former Uniforms Adopted, Daily Boston Globe, Feb 2, 1935. pg. 3.
- “All U.S. Officers Ordered to Wear Sam Browne Belts,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 7, 1921.
- “Sam Browne now Passe,” Lawrence Perry, The Atlanta Constitution, Sept. 21, 1942.
- “Ubiquitous Sam Browne,” New York Times, April 4, 1937.
- “In a Mirror, Darkly Part I,” directed by James L. Conway, Paramount, 2005.
- “Qpid,” directed by Cliff Bole, Paramount, 1991.
- “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” directed by David Carson, Paramount, 1990.