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Going west

While often considered a niche product, cowboy boots are popular with riders and fashionistas worldwide.

by Stuart Morgan

Image © Lincolnrogers |

The ‘cowboy boot’ – usually highly decorated – is viewed as a ‘must buy’ among certain shoppers in the USA, as well as with a certain clientele in many other parts of the world. There are many specialised American-themed events in Europe and elsewhere at which manufacturers and suppliers showcase their latest products to appreciative consumers.

In addition to being worn by some men and women in the street, the cowboy boot is, not surprisingly, the accepted style of footwear for US western riding and showing events. Wearers normally have the choice of the high ‘cowboy’ (or ‘riding’) heel – angled and usually over one inch high, the slightly lower (but still angled) ‘walking’ heel, or the low, squared-off ‘roper’ heel – similar to that used on ‘English’ riding boots.

The decorated uppers of cowboy boots may vary in height. The shortest is the ‘roper’ style, which finishes just above the wearer’s ankle. This style developed in response to the needs of modern rodeo riders, particularly those participating in calf roping competitions, where the cowboy had to be able to run to tie the calf as well as ride. The boot was less expensive, and it could be easily removed. The lace-up roper boot became popular as this method of securing prevented the boot from falling off too easily and provided more ankle support when on foot. However, there are safety issues because the laced boot will not slip off if a falling rider is hung up in a stirrup.

The most popular length is the mid-calf boot that prevents a western saddle from rubbing on the rider’s ankle and calf. The tallest cowboy boots (which reach to just below the knee) are rarely used for actual horse riding, normally being reserved for fashion wear. Although the classic pull-on boot is still common, lace-up or zip-up boots have become popular.

When it all started

Image © Greg O’Beirne

Some more expensive cowboy boots use exotic materials – such as snakeskin, shown in this store display

While early boots featured single rows of top stitching, cowboys soon began asking for decorative stitches, cutouts in the high tops and different materials. The fashion for highly decorated dress boots being worn by cowboys when in town started to develop more than 150 years ago. Advertisements in fashion magazines from the 1850s and 1860s show the cowboy boot available with topstitching, geometric cutouts and an underslung heel. The popularity of Wild West shows and, later, western movies influenced styles that were often adopted by both working cowboys and others who simply liked the look. Modern cowboy boots are available in all colours and, while traditionally made of smooth bovine leather, examples are also manufactured from more expensive leathers such as alligator, buffalo, eel, elephant, elk, lizard, ostrich, snake or stingray.

The sky’s the limit

Image © Tixtis |

Cowboy boots available at an American music fair – held in Milan, Italy

While the majority of decorated cowboy boots on sale around the world are manufactured on factory production lines and retail at £250-£450 ($387-$700) or less, there are specialist bootmakers in the USA who take on individual commissions with price tags to match the time spent on the footwear’s creation. Handcrafting a basic boot can take some 400 individual steps, from cutting backstays to sewing inlays and overlays, then stretching wet vamps over lasts and hammering in lemon-wood pegs to secure the soles. This is a time-consuming skill, so customers are warned not to expect their custom boots for at least a few months, and in some cases well over a year.

Manufacturers of cowboy boots often turn their talents to producing amazing results, considering the limited materials they work with. One company in Texas was asked to make a pair of boots with inlaid colour images of movie director Steven Spielberg, his actress wife Kate Capshaw and their seven children as a gift to music composer John Williams. Another bootmaker produced a £11,000 ($17,000) pair for an enthusiastic sports fan. The design incorporated ticket stubs from the 16 Super Bowl American football matches the customer had attended.

Even that price tag pales into insignificance when considering the £48,000 ($75,000) bill for a pair designed to trace the history of Mexico, which included no less than £12,000 ($18,000)-worth of gold and silver coins.

The variety of cowboy boots available suggests that their popularity remains unchecked – with western riders, fashion-conscious consumers and wealthy businessmen alike.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 12 of the July/August 2015 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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