The evolution of the modern cowboy boot

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From cattle drives to catwalks, the cowboy boot has had quite a transformative journey.

One of the most well-known styles of footwear dates back to the late 1870s in the old American West.

A combination of tough terrain, cattle drive and safety when riding contributed to the design of the iconic footwear.

cowboy culture

The history of the cowboy boot is the history of the cowboy.

“There is no more recognizable symbol worldwide than the American cowboy,” said Michael Grauer, McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture and Curator of Cowboy Collections and Western Art at the National Cowboy Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

“They represent liberty and liberty, they represent hard work in general and all the qualities and values ​​that most people admire, and [people] “So when you wear cowboy boots or a cowboy hat, you kind of become a part of this great tapestry that is cowboy culture.”

A critical span

The cowboy boot as we know it today dates back to the post-Civil War trail riding era in Texas and Kansas.

According to Grauer, the main model for the cowboy boot at the time was the military boot. But unlike cavalrymen who rode on the balls of their feet, cowboys rode on the instep of their feet, leading to a key development in the shoe’s design.

“The actual invention of true cowboy boots is the insertion of the steel shank into the instep,” Grauer said, noting that the steel shank was sewn between layers of leather to create a supported instep in the boots.

This development was crucial in that cowboys rode with their feet in the stirrups of their saddles, and wearing boots with a sturdier instep made riding more comfortable. In doing so, the addition of the supported instep allowed cowboys to ride longer.

Heel, toe, deer-see-deer

The time spent in the saddle led to some further developments towards the modern cowboy boot.

For example, the first boots had a rounded toe design. However, a pointed toe was later introduced as it allowed the cowboys to slide their feet into the stirrups more easily.

A higher heel has also been incorporated. A higher heel would make it easier for cowboys to keep their feet and ankles from slipping into their stirrups.

“One of the things a cowboy fears the most is seeing his foot get caught in a stirrup and being thrown off because the horses would pull it off,” Grauer said. “When that happened, it was usually fatal.”

Safety at work

Another part of the evolution of the cowboy boot was the introduction of larger uppers, or shanks. According to Grauer, the tall shafts were initially called “stovepipe” because they looked like stovepipes on a boot. These tops provided more protection for the leg when cowboys rode through the brush during cattle drives.

“I believe with all my heart that cowboys built America,” Grauer said. “They built America because of their work, which was dirty. It was dangerous, often boring. They made low wages, and they still make low wages, but they’re still willing to do that, put food on the table.”

“This great country was built on beef and bread, and it took strong boots to do the work, whether they be cowboy boots or peasant boots,” he added.

Boot scootin’ boogie

In the time since its inception, the cowboy boot has evolved from its practical use on cattle drives to a fashion statement and part of popular culture.

Some of the people who helped spread the popularity of the cowboy boot and the overall cowboy aesthetic were musicians. According to Grauer, musicians then known as “hillbilly music” appropriated the cowboy aesthetic to popularize the music genre. This led to the genre later being called “Country and Western”.

From then on, many others also began wearing the iconic shoes and style of the cowboys.

“Most people appreciate what the cowboy represents, even if it’s a mythological cowboy, and they kind of want to be a part of it — they kind of want to own a part of it,” Grauer said.

“So wearing boots is part of it – being a little cowboy, I guess you could call it – by putting it on your feet,” he added.

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