Slouched, leathery boots coated in dust and looking as if they’ve seen many a mile, signal that the wearer is a true cowboy.
While many of us wear our boots for fashion, cowboy boots were originally wholly for function and use. The boots of today with the plethora of different leathers, stitching, decoration and Swarovski crystals are a far cry from the days of old when cowboys wore their boots because they had to.
We know this, but how did a riding boot become known as the cowboy boot?
Legend has it that the original cowboy boot was worn by Genghis Khan. Even this great emperor had a stylish flair; he was known for wearing distinctive red boots with a wooden heel. High topped boots with low heels were perfect for riding, and the boots caught on. The first Duke of Wellington (Arthur Wellesley, who famously defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815), wore a characteristic boot as well; footwear we know today as the Wellington. Because of its simple construction (there are 4 different pieces), the Wellington became the model for army supply boots during the Civil War. The cowboy era was ushered in shortly after the Civil War, and thus the evolution of the cowboy boot as we know it began.
A Cowboy’s Boot
Cowboys wore Wellingtons and other variations because the “tall tops of the boots protected your legs; the underslung heels kept your feet in the stirrups.” Each feature of a boot has a purpose.
Long Shaft: The tall leather shaft exists for a variety of reasons. First, consider the lack of laces – the length of the shaft aids in holding the boot in place, while still allowing the boot to come off fairly easily. If a rider falls from his horse and his shoe gets caught – the lack of laces will allow the boot to pull off simply from the rider’s body weight. The tall construction of the shaft also helps keep water out.
The thick leather around the ankle and lower calf protects against rubbing against the stirrup, and also fends off thorns, brambles, tall grass, and the occasional rattlesnake.
Tall Heel: The heel of cowboy boots is very distinctive; rarely (if ever), do men wear heels. But in this instance it is required. Cowboys often ride young, unpredictable horses, and the tall heel prevents the foot from sliding forward in the stirrup – which provides more control and stability.
Pointed Toe: The shape of the toe is also important; it allows the rider to slip their foot easily into the stirrup.
The Roper: This style of boot, with the short shaft, became necessary with the popularity of the modern rodeo. In the calf roping event, cowboys are required not only to ride and rope a calf, they must slide off their horse and run to tie it. Because of the need to run quickly, the shaft was shortened to make it more comfortable.
But, you might ask how the decorative and fashionable cowboy boots came about.
Humans love artistic, beautiful items. Many cowboys owned two pairs of boots – one for working, and one for town. Thus, more and more, the fashion boot became more common. Hollywood also helped this change come about.
“With actors such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, Hollywood made heroes out of cowboys and fashion icons out of cowboy boots…Filmmakers adapted the ideals of the era of the cowboy — the rugged individualism, strength, self-reliance and independence — and popularized the cowboy code of honor. The leading men playing those roles wore hand-tooled boots with star designs, embossing and inlays that added to the mystique.”
Whether you’re a working cowboy, or someone who is entranced by the rugged individualism, cowboy boots are for you. There are so many sizes and shapes, anyone can find the perfect pair and feel just like the cowboys of old.
“Every generation at some point discovers cowboy boots. They’re icons.”
This is the third in our series of blog posts about the purpose of western clothing; we’ve covered the cowboy hat and jeans previously. Check them out!
Quotes from Cowboy Boots: The Art and Sole, by Jennifer June.