While other states may argue the point, for many decades, there were not many items of clothing so rich in history that they identified Texas as your place of residence as accurately as a cowboy boot. (Don’t worry… we’ll get to ten-gallon hats later.) Boots were as essential to a cowboy’s standard gear as they are for a youngster’s Lone Ranger costume. And, you know you can actually hear the “kkshhching” sound in your head when you imagine an outlaw or a marshal doing a slow walk into a saloon wearing spurs.
Like many things in the Lone Star State, cowboy boot design and function show off the vivid history and culture of Texas with every step.
Like much of the cowboy culture itself, boot designs were adapted from the equestrian culture of Spanish and Mexican vaqueros, who began hand-making boots in the 1500s. There is also some evidence that military boots, designed for cavalry, had an influence on the eventual design as well.
Early boots were cowhide leather pieced together with single rows of top stitching. Custom boots often included decorative stitching to match the colors of the ranch, or cutouts in the high tops—e.g., Texas stars—based on the wearer’s preferences.
When they first hit the trail, boots were a functional option for working cowboys. Hardworking trail riders needed affordable and practical footwear that would allow them to ride safely, but also provide support when they needed to run, and transition back into the saddle again.
In the 19th century, the rise and popularity of wild west shows influenced new fashionable styles that working cowboys adopted for their non-working and “dress” boots. Later, in the 1930s and ‘40s, Hollywood Westerns brought even more color, accessories, and materials that helped mold the cowboy image across the country’s collective conscience.
Modern, authentic cowboy boots are available in all colors and can be made from just about every animal whose skin can be made into leather, including exotic materials like alligator and ostrich.
Function and Form
Nothing tells you more about the cowboy you’re looking at than the boots on his feet. Specifically, heel height and toe shape.
One thing they all have in common, the slick, treadless leather sole of the boot allows easy in and out motion in of the stirrups of a Western saddle. As well, the toe of a riding boot was rounded and slightly narrowed at the toe to make it easier to insert into the stirrup. The modern shape of the toe in “dress boots”, while a source for debate, does not have much influence on use or safety, and tends to simply reflect personal preference. Many bootmakers have proprietary names for the toe shape, but, generally, wearers can choose from roach-killer, narrow pointed to reach into corners; snip, the top edge of the point is flattened slightly; wide snip, wider edge at the top; square, and round.
The heel of a roper boot is flat and stable. Men and women wear roper heels when jumping from a horse to rope a steer and immobilize the animal before branding it. This boot is designed for maximum stability on the ground to avoid falls or ankle injuries while wrestling or bull-dogging a steer.
The modern roper style boot, with a low heel and shorter shaft, evolved from traditional designs to accommodate modern rodeo cowboys, particularly calf roping, where the cowboy had to run to tie the calf as well as to ride. The lower shaft meant less expense and also allowed the boot to be easily removed.
Riding heels; about 2”, with a steep forward pitch (angled forward from top to bottom) keep the rider’s foot from sliding too far forward in the stirrup.
While in the saddle, the tall, angled heel minimizes the risk of the foot sliding forward through the stirrup, which could be life-threatening to the rider if he became unbalanced or unseated. Historically, this was likely, since cattlemen often rode young or unfamiliar horses in challenging terrain. If a rider fell from a horse but had a boot caught in the stirrup, there was a risk that the horse could panic and run off; if the boot was fully through the stirrup, there was a danger of being dragged.
The tall, sturdy shaft helps hold the boot in place without lacing. These features helped prevent a cowboy from being dragged since his body weight could allow him to slip his foot out if he fell off while the boot remained stuck in the stirrup. While mounted, the shaft also protected the lower leg and ankle from rubbing on the leathers, as well as from brush and thorns. While dismounted, the shaft helped protect the leg and foot from rocks, brush, thorns, and rattlesnake bites. In wet weather or creek crossings, the high tops also helped prevent the boot from filling with mud and water.
Back when cowboys were a feature of the West, these boots weren’t made for walkin’. They served the practical purpose of allowing men to ride comfortably in the western saddle for an extended period of time without slipping.
Spurred by the 1980 movie “Urban Cowboy,” western fashion became a mainstream rage and sales of boots increased exponentially. For a brief time, fashion mavens and cowboy wanna-bes across the nation bought boots and hats as quickly as the manufacturers could stitch them. Many boot makers worked long hours and upscaled their plants to keep up with demand, which dropped just as suddenly and put many out of work by 1985.
But the fondness for the American West never died out, although some designs are hardly recognizable or reminiscent any more of actual cowboys.
Cowboy boots continue to come in and out of vogue around the world, and have changed with each iteration. In the Internet Age, in which you can find tie-dyed or metallic boots… or both, western wear even has its own counterculture hashtag, #Yeehaw. Some see the pop culture and fashion industries trying to assimilate the masculine image of the cowboy and a new embrace of the nostalgia it represents—although some do it ironically as a poke at conservative America. In either case, boot makers are going to continue to be in business for a long time to come.