The History of Leather Part 12 – Cowboy Boots

Posted on 21/07/14

Are you ready, boots? (around 1870)

No one is really sure how the cowboy boot came about. There are a few campfire tales and legends here and there, with different states claiming culpability for their creation, but the basic gist stays the same, regardless of which state serves as the backdrop for proceedings.

That is, of course, if we accept that 19th Century America to be the cowboy boot’s country of origin. There are theories postulating that Genghis Khan might have been the first to wear cowboy boots, in fact, or at least, distinctive heeled riding boots.

Other theories credit the first Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, as wearing one of the earliest cowboy boot-like design. It was Wellesley who gave his name to the calf-length, low-heeled Wellington boot after triumphing over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815.

Returning to the alleged American origin of the famed cowboy boot, it all started at the end of the Civil War in 1865 when cowboys driving hordes of cattle across the country. They found that they needed footwear that could contend with the full gamut of the wild American countryside – creeks, river, dense brush and brambles, you name it. Well, that and the sheer duress of riding with feet planted in stirrups for hours at a time.

There is actually method to the boldness of the cowboy boot’s design. The mid-calf high design protected the rider’s ankles and shins from friction, water and spiny, low-hanging plants. The leather that the boots were made of, be it cowhide or more exotic skins like snake or alligator skins, made it not only easy for riders to slide their feet into the stirrups, but also to slide back out again if they lost control of their horse. Being dragged along the ground by an errant horse is the last thing you want as a rider.

As for the heel, the heel makes sure that, despite the soft leather, the rider is able to keep their feet in the stirrups. At the same time though, the heel isn’t a lock that keeps the foot-stirrup union intact irrespective of the situation – so if the rider loses control they can still break free of the horse if they need to.

Cowboy boots began as utilitarian, straight-laced affairs – only becoming more individual and impressive once Hollywood got hold of them. The basic template of being mid-calf, leather, heeled and possibly pointed-toed, remained consistent. All that changed was the body of the boots becoming more elaborate and designed depictions of an on-screen cowboy’s personality. The status of cowboy boots as icons was cemented. It is almost impossible to picture a cowboy without cowboy boots – the key is in the name for goodness’ sake!

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