Written by: Karin Apfel
The evolution of the iconic cowboy boot.
1. Americans and Europeans travelling west wore anything from Wellingtons (calf-high boots with low heels) to brogans (ankle-high shoes made of untanned leather), but none of these were suitable for cattle drovers spending 10 to 12 hours a day in the saddle in rough conditions.
2. Cobblers in Coffeyville, Kansas in the 1870s are generally credited with designing the first boots that better satisfied their needs with a reinforced arch and higher heel that stayed in the stirrups.
3. The Coffeyville style boots were normally black leather and the shafts were tall (at least 12 inches) to protect the lower legs from saddle rubs as well as brush and cacti spines.
4. Laces were not used since they could catch on a stirrup if a rider fell from his (yes, “his” since most were men) horse or keep him from kicking free if the boot caught. Therefore, cowboy boots are designed to be pulled on and to fit snugly. Leather loops (pull-straps or bootstraps) were added at the top to assist in pulling the boot on.
5. The underslung and higher heel was adapted from the “Cuban heel,” which was becoming popular at the time. A higher heel prevented the boot from slipping through the stirrup, which could also result in a rider who “accidentally dismounted” getting dragged and injured.
6. The toe was sturdy to protect digits from hooves, square or rounded, and designed with a distinct taper to assist in sliding easily in and out of stirrups. There are now a variety of toe styles including the square, traditional, snip (small square) and rounded.
7. In 1879, H.J. “Daddy Joe” Justin started repairing boots in Spanish Fort, Texas. After receiving a loan to purchase materials, he began making his own cowboy boots. Justin was an early user of decorative stitching, incorporating rows of stitches across the boot tops and shafts as a means of stiffening the leather, preventing it from folding around the ankles.
8. Justin and other pioneer bootmakers, such as Tony Lama and Sam Lucchese, soon dominated the cowboy market with their high quality, comfortable boots. Justin’s was the first firm to offer mail order boots, with a measuring system invented by Joe’s wife Annie. The system revolutionized custom boot-making, making Justin famous throughout the West as it became settled.
9. Cowboy boots eventually became palettes for artistically-inclined bootmakers who were happy to oblige the vanities of cowpunchers that wanted custom or easily identifiable footwear and, later, Hollywood cowboy actors and Nashville musicians that wanted to project the image of the rugged frontiersman. Contrasting stitching, tooling, exotic leathers and coloured dyes took the basic riding boot to fashion (and, often, novelty) status.
10. The comfort and fit demanded by western boot customers in the 1980s would radically change the components and construction of cowboy footwear. Plain Wellington style boots, known as “ropers,” became a fad in the 1980s, largely because of their shoe-like fit. In the early 1990s, technologically-advanced boots introduced by a new company, Ariat, revolutionized western boots and created a whole subcategory of western and riding boots.