Western Boots: Their History And Role In Fashion
The culture of the Wild West is inseparable from the American lifestyle. Even today, more than one hundred years after the end of the American frontier era, the spirit of it lingers, permeating every aspect of our daily life. You can feel it particularly strongly in the American West. It’s not like the city streets are filled with cowboys and cowgirls of every stripe, but here you are more likely to see someone wearing western boots than anywhere else in the U.S. Cowboys, together with pioneers and Native Americans, had a strong influence on local culture. Fashion, being one of the elements of culture, is a bright example of that claim. The cowboy boots won the hearts of countless people when they only began to appear and keep doing so almost two hundred years after. The mere abundance of brands that specialize solely in western boots is the best proof of their popularity. Ariat, Twisted X, Corral boots – the examples are plentiful. We know what they look like, but do we know where they come from? How did they appear, and how do they keep influencing fashion today? Later on, in today’s article.
When Did Western Boots Appear?
Riding boots were by no means a cowboy’s novelty. For as long as people were riding horses, they wore footwear that could make the process more comfortable. Despite that, cowboy boots and modern equestrian boots don’t look very much alike, though some similarities are present. The cowboy boots, as we know them today, were heavily influenced by the culture of the vaquero.
The curious thing to know about horses in America is that they had been extinct roughly since the ice age. As a result, no culture of horse-mounted cattle herders could exist here until equines were brought. The tribute for bringing them together with domesticated cattle lies with Spanish settlers and conquistadors. With animals also came the cattle ranching tradition. First Spanish settlers came to the Americas in the 16th century, landing in what is today Mexico and Florida.
Naturally, western boots didn’t appear the moment horses were brought. It took some time for the culture of vaquero to take root and flourish, with English and Spanish traditions merging and producing distinctive “cowboy” culture. English-speaking settlers began arriving in Texas in 1821. California wasn’t populated until after the Mexican War ended in 1848. Though not adjacent, these two states contributed greatly to the development of the iconic American cowboy image.
What Did The Original Cowboy Boots Look Like?
Even though we know what influenced the way traditional cowboy boots looked, pinpointing their exact origin is a task too difficult even for historians. We know for sure they were influenced by the footwear Northern Mexican vaqueros wore as well as cavalry military boots. Those were developed based on, respectively, Spanish riding boots and footwear worn by the English military. We also know that American buckaroo boots had more styles than Mexican vaquero boots. While origin might not seem like a relevant characteristic, locating roots may help understand where certain features come from.
In the very beginning, cowboy boots were all about functionality. They were designed as work boots and didn’t feature the same embellishments modern cowboy boots do. Every feature of a boot was supposed to serve the rider and help them with various aspects of horseback riding.
First, a rider needed to put their feet through stirrups. To facilitate this process, boots were slightly narrowed at the toe while remaining relatively rounded to ensure a comfortable fit. Slick leather soles were introduced to make both insertion and removal of the foot easier.
Once a cowboy was seated, the next task was to remain seated. It wasn’t about lack of skill but rather the unpredictability of horses, often young and untamed. Accidents were quite common, and cowboy boots possessed features that could prevent them from happening. The tall and angled heel kept the boot secure in the stirrup and prevented it from slipping in. This feature was extremely important as a foot stuck in the stirrup could cost a cowboy his life. For the same reason, all boots featured no laces since they could become the very reason for a foot being stuck.
Functionality was important, but so was comfort. The loose fit was another signature feature of cowboy footwear that allowed the body weight of the rider to pull his foot from the boot should dismounting and dragging incidents occur. But with no laces, boots like that would slip off too often. Tall shafts were the solution to that problem. They also protected the lower leg and ankle from rubbing on the stirrup, as well as brush and thorns.
The original cowboy boots were made from cowhide and sometimes decorated with stitching and cutouts. As time went on, decorations became more and more elaborate, and the choice of materials more and more extensive.
What Are Other Western Boots Designs?
Being a thing of fashion, cowboy boots went through many modifications. Some are relatively new, appearing because of the demand for diversity. Other changes, however, were driven by demand.
The most significant change to traditional design came with the introduction of rodeos. The tasks changed, and the boots needed to follow the suit. Since rodeo involved rigorous physical activities like calf roping and running, the focus was shifted from safety to comfort. Roper boots featured shorter shafts that never exceeded the middle of the calf, rounded toes, and low, squared-off heels usually less than an inch high. Since shafts could no longer secure the boot on foot, a lace-up design was also introduced. Laced-up roper boots were an option rather than a trend since they sacrificed safety for a better and more secure fit.
Another significant change came during the 1940s with the Golden Age of the Western. Cinematography played a key role in popularizing boots featuring extremely pointed, stylized toes. This design was never used by real cowboys as it traded comfort for aesthetics. This, however, didn’t prevent the design from becoming extremely popular.
Those are not the only changes traditional cowboy boot design underwent. Depending on the intended purpose, toes, heels, and shafts were altered. Western boots were retailored to be more comfortable for walking, reinforced to be worn as work boots, and embellished with all sorts of things to be more eye-catching. Cowhide remains the most popular material, though exotic hides are also widely used.
What Is The Place Of Western Boots In Fashion?
Cowboy boots were a key attribute of the Western style. Everybody knows what cowboys looked like, but boots and a hat went down in history as the most iconic elements of that look. Footwear designed for cattle herders conquered the hearts of people regardless of their social class. Western footwear managed to preserve its original look while leaving its footprint on mainstream fashion. The western style enjoyed several waves of popularity, though it’s hard to tell if they ever got out of fashion. Modern-day footwear, inspired by cowboy boots, retained signature features of their inspiration. Pointed toes, slanted heels, and high shafts blend with modern-day abstract patterns, unconventional heel forms, and colors never met on original cowboy boots. Those are the features of modern cowgirl boots, with models tailored for the male audience being less bold in its fashion pioneering attempts.
The spirit of the Wild West will never grow old, for it permeates the very fabric of American culture. Though this thread might occasionally get lost in the tangles of other threads, both new and old, it is durable enough to withstand any tension. As long as we have something to wear boots on, cowboy boots will be with us.