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The History of Cowboy Boots

From Workhorse to Fashion Statement

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Cowboy Boots Photo

Classic cowboy boots like these made in the 1940s and '50s set the standard for design, although they are increasingly difficult to find in wearable condition. Such vintage boots provide inspiration to folks choosing new, custom-made pairs.

(Photo illustration by Jennifer June)
Cowboy boots -- no question, there's a romance and a mystique to them. Spot a vintage pair and they're sure to have a story.

The legends and lore surrounding the unique footwear are as richly tooled as the history of the American West. Before kids wanted to be "like Mike," they yearned to be like cowboy and cowgirl legends of Hollywood -- Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and Hopalong Cassidy.

If you grew up in the 1950s, it's likely your cowboy boots were among your most prized possessions, says Jennifer June, an Oakland, Calif., a maker of custom boots and a cowboy boot aficionado.

"I'd always loved cowboy boots, but years ago, when I found a vintage pair at a consignment shop, I was hooked," says June. "I started to learn all I could."

The result was her boot-making career and a book, "Cowboy Boots: The Art and Sole" (Universe, Compare Prices). The work takes the reader through the diverse history of the boot, from its earliest roots to today's modern interpretations.

Cowboy Boots: Early Forerunners

Legend has it that cowboy boots can be traced back to Genghis Khan, who wore distinctive red boots with wooden heels. In 17th- and 18th-century England, riding boots had high tops and stacked heels. Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 -- and gave his name to a calf-length boot with a low heel. The Wellington's four-piece construction, the same used for modern cowboy boots, made it easy to mass produce. Wellingtons were preferred by soldiers during the U.S. Civil War. When the war ended in 1865, soldiers took their boots home with them.

A few years later, America ushered in the era of the cowboy -- and the cowboy boot as we know it today.

Footwear for Cattle Drives

"From 1865 to 1890, cowboys drove cattle from Texas to Kansas. They wore Wellingtons and variations," June says. "The tall tops of the boots protected your legs; the underslung heels kept your feet in the stirrups." The cowboy boot's original design elements were suited to the horseback rider, including the rounded or pointed toe that makes it easy to insert the foot into a stirrup and the slick sole that allows the boot to slip free when dismounting.

Early cowboy boots were work boots and were suitably utilitarian in appearance. Hollywood, June says, jazzed them up.

"With actors such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, Hollywood made heroes out of cowboys and fashion icons out of cowboy boots," June says. "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."

Modern Incarnations of Cowboy Boots

Today, cowboy boots are once again in the public eye, made fashionable by politicians such as President George W. Bush and Hollywood celebs including Jessica Simpson. Cowboys of yesteryear, however, would drop their six-shooters at the sight of the boots in stores now -- and the price tags.

Whereas traditional cowboy boots were made from cowhide, with customization limited mostly to decorative stitching, their modern counterparts are available in a multitude of colors and can be made from exotic skins such as ostrich or stingray. Silver or gold toe tips, hand-worked leather inlays and exotic ornamentation can also be had.

"The sky's the limit when it comes to what you can spend on cowboy boots," June says. "I've heard of boots that sold for upwards of $60,000."

Consumers with smaller budgets can expect to pay from $100 to $600 for a good pair of mass-produced boots. Popular brand names include Ariat, Justin, Frye and Tony Lama. Custom boots go higher. The investment, June says, is worth it.

"Every generation at some point discovers cowboy boots," June says. "They're icons."

Popular Brands of Cowboy Boots

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