The origins of the Cowboy Boot are well researched and started life as riding boots for the marauding Mongol tribesmen. Horsemen wore red wooden heels and conquered all before them. The fashion caught on and was popular for centuries among nobility and horse riders. Louis XIV wore only red heels as a tribute to Genghis Khan and banned all other men in his court from sporting the red heel.
English Cavaliers took the style to extraordinary lengths wearing thigh high riding boots with Cuban heels. Once defeated by Oliver Cromwell, the Cavalier Stuarts immigrated in their droves to the New World. They took with them their boots and many settled in the southern states forming the plantation class. After the Civil War (1861-65) many southerners migrated west to Texas taking with them their noble footwear. Standard cavalry issue during the American Civil War was the Wellington boot.
In 1815, Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington, defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo (1815). The popular victor became a national icon and both men and women emulated his sartorial style by adopting his footwear. To make the boots easier to mass produce the modern Wellington had a low cut heel which was calf high and not thigh high.
Unfortunately, during the American Civil War (1861-1865) unscrupulous contractors supplied below par footwear to the government and many of the cavalry boots were mass produced using reinforced cardboard. Climatic conditions took its tool and horse soldiers suffered deep cuts to their feet. A Chiropodist General to the US cavalry was appointed at this time. Our lexicon was enriched with the word shoddy meaning manufacturers willing to compromise for profit. Many experts believe the final victory by the Union Army was in no small measure due to the superior footwear of their forces. There were few boot factories in the south and many of the Confederate Army fought barefoot.
Right and left boots were introduced and they were most unpopular. As a result, shoe manufacturers decided not to introduce right and left shoes to the masses for another half century. At the end of the war the federal government had half a million pairs of boots surplus to requirements.
Systematically during the following years troops stationed on the frontier were supplied with the shoddy boots. Shoe historians believe the foundation of the cowboy boot trade in the frontier was based on the simple necessity for civilian bookmakers to replace defective military footwear. Skilled workers from Germany and other European Countries were welcomed and crafted hard wearing boots called "kips" from the shoddy military issue. These were low heeled, high topped boots made in hard, black, leather. Boot makers based their designs on Northern European riding boots. The most popular was the Coffeyville Boot (1870) from Coffeyville, Kansas. It combined the various US Cavalry styles and the original British leather, Wellington boot. Billy the Kid (1859-1881) was reputed to wear a style of boots based on the Austrian Boot.
During the American Indian Wars in the west (circa 1865) the US Government issued new boots to the soldiers that used brass tacks to hold the leather soles to the uppers. As the soles wore down the tracks protruded through the bottom into the soldier’s feet. The Government put together a committee to study the problem and suggested a solution. Their solution was to issue each soldier with a metal file to file down the points of the tacks as they pushed through the boot sole. This is thought to be the origin of the phrase “getting down to brass tacks.”
High heeled boots (4"), called saddle dandies, were popular by 1860s. The back of the heel sloped gently until the sole was no bigger than a quarter.
Drover, Stovepipe and cattleman models were popular and the leg of the boots rose at least 14 inches with many boots going thigh high.
By the 1880's the cowboy boot was beginning to emerge as a distinctive style. Starting life as a dress Wellington or full Wellington, the fashion merged with the hard wearing lace up boot (or packer), worn by drovers. Other influences included the Mexican riding boot called vaquero. Early cowboy boots had no ornamentation and for control in the saddle, the shoe portion was made so tight that walking was difficult and painful. Originally both boots were made on the same last which necessitated the wearer having to break them in. Later the three-piece military boot was incorporated and worn by Hollywood's Cowboys.
In 1903 the first embroidered toe wrinkles started to appear. Cut out leather designs often in a star pattern were sometimes overlaid around the collars of the boot tops. Tejas (or Napoleon style boots) with their peacock flair and ostentatious inlays were worn by Hollywood megastars like Tex Ritter (1905 -1974) and Tom Mix (1880 – 1940) during the 20's and 30's. At first films were made in the Eastern States and the costumes were based on exaggerated clothing illustrated in cheap novels and comics. By the time the industry moved to California in 1914 and employed real cowboys, their actual clothes were considered too dull compared to the illusion.
Instead actors wore highly decorated boots outside their trousers.
Charlie Dunn one of Texas's most famous makers had produced in 1914 a pair of boots trimmed with gold and inlaid with diamonds and rubies for a gambler. In 1923 boots were available in the US, made from kangaroo skins. It is therefore somewhat surprising to think; today’s cowboy boots are really fantasy footwear fabricated by Hollywood and have little to do with the Wild West.
The Italian shoe designer, Salvatore Ferragamo (1898- 1960) made boots for one of Cecil B de Mille's films. The director was so impressed he said " The West would have been conquered earlier, if they had boots like these." The style caught on and thanks to Hollywood became popular across the world. Designs became more colourful and ornate and fashion designed flocked to add to the range of boots available to the fashion following throngs.
By the 1930s cowboy boots were available with leather inlays depicting steer heads, stars, half-moons, dice diamonds, initials, ranch brands, hearts and butterflies. Boot makers vied to outdo each other with coloured leathers, stitching and exotic materials, decorating their boots with decks of cards, oil derricks, spider's webs, prickly pear cacti, and bucking broncos. The exotic cowboy boot remained popular and peaked in the mid-fifties.
The Lucchese Company of Texas in 1940's produced 48 pairs of boots to symbolise each of the states, featuring inlays of the state house and state flower, bird and flag.
In 1954, the design of cowboy boots changed to accommodate the growing sport of Roping. At rodeos competitors were required to bale off their mounts, then chase and tackle a strong calf. A lower heel and rounded toe was preferred. This style soon caught on with the audience and became the vogue.
The 60s brought an oil boom to the oil states which led to a subsequent economic upswing. Conservative Texans were more likely to drive a Cadillac than ride mustangs and so therefore influenced the fashion for lower heeled boots.
By the 70's urban cowboys took to the dance floor and the common work boot all but vanished. The new boots were less hardwiring and more high fashion. Today's styles cater for both with the traditional high heel and pointed toes for the posers and a lower heel, rounder toed boot with comfortable soles and laces for the real cowboy.
There is a common bond between many of the modern US Presidents and cowboy boots. Harry Trueman (1948) ordered his from the famous bootmakers, Tony Lama, establishing the "El Presidente" style which in turn graced the feet of many other US Presidents.
Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon B Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama .
The Johnston & Murphy Company made President Obama a pair of boots similar to the style made for Abraham Lincoln in 1861.
City Slicker, Donald Trump is the exception, (what else ?) and is rarely seen in anything other than in flashy and gleaming-with-shine black leather Oxfords.
The appeal of the fashion cowboy boot in not hard to fathom and it is an excuse for men to share the thrill of standing on elevated footwear. The change in body mass this has makes for a more attractively shaped derriere and hence the natural development of the jeans. Standing taller helps to give the impression of power and dominance and presence and presentation were all in the Hollywood that made the style fashionable. The footwear can be secreted into everyday wear and therefore undetected to the undiscerning eye. On average a handmade fashion boot will take 45 hours of loving labour and be every bit as a creation as a designer cocktail dress.
More information about the cowboy boot at Jennifer June's Tribute to Cowboy Boots