“As a very young man growing up in Texas, usually I got a shotgun or cowboy boots for Christmas,” remarked Robert Wilson.
Cowboy boots and guns have been symbols of Texas for at least 200 years. Cowboys wore footwear that reflected their job and the unforgiving environment in which they worked, with vast distances to cover, over terrain that constantly presented challenges. They needed footwear that was comfortable, hard-wearing, and above all practical. They had the same requirements as the Mongolian horsemen of the ninth century and more recently the Duke of Wellington’s cavalry facing the French at Waterloo.
Mounting and dismounting needed to be swift, smooth and without impediment. The cowboy boot answered these demands with a tapered toe and smooth, ridge-less soles. With no laces to tie up or to come undone, there was nothing to snag on the stirrup. Once in the saddle, the boot stayed on the foot thanks to a long ‘shaft’ that came up midway to the rider’s calf.
The cowboy stayed most of the working day in the saddle so comfort was essential. The metal shank concealed in the arch of each sole allowed him to stand upright on horseback for hours at a time. The boot’s long shaft offered a loose fit, limiting the chafing as the leg rubbed against the saddle. It also afforded some protection. Much of the terrain over which the cowboy rode was peppered with thorny scrub every bit as unfriendly as the American Indians who at times harassed him, or the rattlesnakes lurking in the shadows.
A feeling of being in control was essential. The cowboy boot offered a substantial heel: straight at the front, tapered at the back. This ensured that the foot didn’t slide back and forth in the stirrup uncontrolled. An inch or more in height, this ‘Cuban heel,’ as it came to be known, acted as a brake. Often a rider’s ‘mount’ was young and as unpredictable as the landscape. A fall from the saddle at speed was an ever-present possibility. If the rider was unseated, the boot’s loose fit allowed the foot to slide free; a preferable alternative to being dragged along the ground still attached to the horse.
The boot was the most expensive part of a cowboy’s wardrobe. A pair bought from a store in 1880 would set the purchaser back $7. Once the preserve of the rich and powerful, these boots were now enjoyed by all. Everyone treated them as a treasured possession. Even after the Industrial Revolution ushered in mechanization and allowed mass production, manufacture of these boots has never been cheap.
In the nineteenth century, boots were generally manufactured from cowhide, although buffalo hide and the skins of more exotic species including elephant were used. Most boots today are made from calfskin imported from Europe. Americans don’t share their European counterparts’ taste for veal and hence don’t slaughter their cattle at such a tender age; also European hides are less likely to bear the scars of barbed wire.
Manufacture of cowboy boots is painstaking and time-consuming. It is like staging a play, with a series of acts involving participants who each play their crucial part. Work starts with construction of the main or upper part of the boot.
This is not one piece of leather but a collection of composite parts that are cut, stitched and glued together. The ‘vamp’ covers the top and sides of the foot, much as an ordinary shoe would do. The ‘counter’ encloses the heel and covers the parts the vamp cannot reach. The main body of the boot is completed by two ‘uppers’ that fit round the base of the shins; one to cover the back and another for the front; both are secured at the sides.
The vamp and counter are then attached to the insole before the whole construction is secured to the sole of the boot. Like any stage play, there is a strong support cast. No cowboy boot could be made without the ‘last’, a plastic (wooden if the boot is bespoke) anatomical reproduction of the human foot. This guides the shape of the boot and remains in place until the finishing process. Also crucial in a quality cowboy boot is the ‘welt’, a long strip of leather that binds the counter, vamp and insole together. Further support is added by a metal shank attached to the insole that reinforces the high arch.
Today most cowboy boots made by long-established firms such as Charles Hyer of Hyer Brothers Boots, Olathe, Kansas are never used on the cattle ranch. They grace the feet of rodeo show-hands and celebrities. The essential footwear of the working cowboy has become a fashion statement. David Beckham certainly doesn’t hail from Texas, and nor does Simon Cowell. Both, however, have been ‘snapped’ wearing a pair of these iconic boots.
The traditional boot has adapted to its new clientele. The main shaft of these new hybrids, known as ‘Ropers’, is shorter, stopping below mid calf. The heel is much shorter, less than one inch, and is squared off. These modifications allow rodeo rider and celebrity alike to walk and move around in comfort. Elaborate, decorative stitching underlines today’s cowboy boot as a statement of style over practicality.