Whether they are made of cow or snake or bird, whether they are black, brown or flaming orange, whether they are round, pointy or square, when you buy cowboy boots, you're buying more than foot protection.
Arnold Schwarzenegger knows it when he buys a pair of sharkskins.
Bruce Springsteen knows it when he buys a pair of vintage boots.
Ronald Reagan knows it when he buys a pair of his beloved Luccheses (if, indeed, he pays for them at all).
Cowboy boots come with more than exotic leather, more than fancy stitchery, more than a high heel, though that high heel may very well have something to do with giving cowboy boots their added dimension--their élan.
These are shoes with an attitude. Built into every pair by its maker is a swagger, an arrogance, a joie de vivre; attributes that are also brought to every pair by its wearer. Step into cowboy boots and you step up, the change in altitude in no small measure begetting a change in attitude.
"I think everybody associates cowboy boots with a kind of manliness," says Tom Gerwing of the Alberts Boot Co. in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. "You're advertising that manliness by wearing them."
Whether you are buying a $400 pair of calfskin boots to wear with your denims or a $5,000 pair of black alligator boots as a dashing accompaniment to your tuxedo, you are also buying into the legendary individualism of the cowboy. Cowboy boots are a truly American fashion statement made popular more than a century ago by a small group of dusty roustabouts and the cobblers who provided them with their most important possession.
"They are a part of our life in Texas," says custom-boot maker Jack Reed. "We wear them because our daddies wore them, and everybody around you wears them. They go back to the days of the cattle drives, and they are still used as work boots today."
The origin of the boots was utilitarian and, in fact, protective footwear for horsemen was worn centuries ago by the hordes of Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan. The American cowboy needed protection on his feet and lower legs for the long trail rides through the Southwest. At some point, he also decided he needed something for his vanity, and the decorative cowboy boot became part of Americana.
Today, it is even more a part of Americana, with flourishing boot companies from coast to coast providing nourishment for both the sole and the soul. Millions of pairs of cowboy boots are purchased in the United States and Canada every year, some to the rich and famous, though mostly to those who are neither rich nor famous.
How unlikely it is that today's cowboy-boot wearer would have associated with yesterday's cowboy. The cowboy of myth, essentially the cowboy of Westerns, was an upstanding, though individualistic, member of society who upheld certain principles of civility and rode to the rescue of maidens while wearing a white hat--and his boots, of course. In truth, he was a member of an untrustworthy, uncivil lot, a drifter not unlike the tumbleweed that blew around him.
Still, we choose to believe the myth, for our own sake rather than history's. We choose to believe that the cowboys were like Tom Mix and Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers. And in contemporary life we take from both myth and reality the cowboy boot as a symbol of our pride, of our stature, of our individuality.
My, how individual cowboy boots can be. From cowhide to lizard, from kangaroo to python, cowboy boots can be made for every taste and every wallet. They can be made with grandiose stitching and inlay work, with any sort of toe from pointed to square, or with high heels or low heels, though there are those who would argue that the arrogance factor is greatly diminished with a lower heel. Most of all, they can be made to fit both the person and the personality.
The common cowboy boot is made of cowhide with minimal decorative stitching, a heel of 1 7/8 inches and in a shade of brown or black. Its wearer is looking for something that is both comfortable and fits with the Western image of denim jeans, a plaid shirt and a broad-brimmed hat.
There is far more to cowboy boots than cowhide, and even far more to cowhide than the conventional, off-the-shelf boot. First, however, you ought to know a little about the boot itself. Simply put, a cowboy boot is divided between the vamp, or shoe part, and the shaft, that part which protects the leg usually to a point above the bend of the calf muscle. The vamp and shaft are made separately and can often be of two different leathers.
A popular way to get the look of very exotic and expensive leathers is to use the exotic for making the vamp and a less expensive leather for the shaft. Putting together an alligator vamp with a cowhide or kangaroo shaft could cut the cost of a full alligator boot by half or more.
All sorts of leather can be used. A light, surprisingly tough and naturally distinctive leather is full-quill ostrich, with all those little bumps where the feathers were pulled out. Absolutely waterproof and tough-as-nails leather includes Norwegian ox and stingray, if you can find a boot maker willing to work with these needle-bending exotics. Python is probably the loudest of the leathers. You can get eel, shark, bullfrog and camel. A lovely and less costly substitute for full alligator is anteater.
Some people like to let the leather do the talking, preferring that there be little or no ornamentation other than the natural grain of the beast itself. Others want to do the talking themselves, and through the skill and magic of the boot maker, they can accomplish this with elaborate stitching and leather inlays in the shaft or with overlaid leathers on the vamp called foxing.
This is where the boot maker really comes to the fore. The custom boot is the ultimate expression of its wearer's personality and its maker's expertise. And while there are a number of boot companies that produce store-bought boots with sufficient personality to satisfy most boot wearers, getting a custom pair is a real kick.
The major boot companies can all accommodate the custom-boot wearer. The big companies, like Tony Lama and Justin Boots, the not-quite-so-big boot companies like Lucchese and Rios of Mercedes, and the individual boot-making operations like Dave Little and Jack Reed and James Leddy, are all located in Texas. Custom boots can be ordered through many Western-wear shops. Billy Martin's in New York City, the epicenter of urban-cowboy fashion, sells a full line of conventional boots by top makers and also fills custom orders.
Gary Van der Meer is the vice president of Billy Martin's, in charge of the boot department, where he sells and designs boots and takes care of custom orders. Van der Meer loves boots and is a collector. "They are an expression of nostalgia for an era when it was every man for himself," says Van der Meer. "They are wearable art, and they make you taller."
Being an individualist himself, Van der Meer wouldn't tell you which kind of boot to buy, but he does offer these tips on what to look for in a quality boot. One, make sure the side stitching on the shaft is straight; it's an indication that the leather has been stretched evenly. Two, make sure the steel shank inside the arch of the shoe has been pegged to keep it from sliding around. Three, the sole stitching should be buried; that is, a groove should be cut into the sole, and the stitching should be insidethe groove.
In Billy Martin's you can find the Lucchese line, which includes the sharp and sophisticated black-cherry alligator. You can find Martin's own line of boots made by Eddie Kimmel of Comanche, Texas. You can find the outrageous boots by Rocketbuster of El Paso, Texas, which include the commemorative Roy Rogers and Dale Evans boots. Only 50 pairs of each were made; they are autographed on the inside by their namesakes. The Roy Rogers boot is $5,000, the Dale Evans, $3,500.
Martin's also sells vintage boots, which is a euphemistic way of saying they are used. Vintage cowboy boots are probably the only upscale used-shoe market in the world, with buyers paying more than $5,000 for boots with elaborate inlay and tool work in good condition. From his store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, Mark Fox does a big business with the Hollywood crowd in vintage boots for both wearing and collecting.
Of course, you could go to Texas. On further consideration, maybe you should go to Texas. This is where the heart of the boot-making industry is, and it is quite possible to lose your heart to a custom pair of boots.
Want a pair with flaming dragons on the shaft? Want elaborate, saddle-work tooling from the toe to the collar? Want a likeness of your sweetheart on the toe? It can all be done, with money and patience. Elaborately inlaid boots can cost as much as the most exotic leather. Remember that inlays have to be duplicated for two boots, and a pair of boots with flamboyant and complicated inlays can take a boot maker more than 200 hours. Your cost: at least $5,000. And the wait could be more than a year.
Ah, but what price patience when it comes to affairs of the feet, or is it really the heart? While the first-time wearer almost always finds the boots difficult to walk in the first few days, he also finds that his feet adapt to this new angle of walking, and in turn his psyche also adapts. Cowboy boots have a way of breaking you in.
Paul Newman still has a pair of boots that he wore in the movie Hud. He buys low-heeled ropers today. Wayne Gretzky and his wife Janet Jones bought matching alligator boots from the Alberta Boot Co., one of Canada's finest. Malcolm Forbes was a cowboy-boot wearer. Mickey Mantle, a native Oklahoman, loves them. They are standard attire for Robert Redford. And that paragon of American style, Ralph Lauren, loves to be seen in them.
Whatever style you choose, whatever the leather, whatever the embellishment, cowboy boots are for those who set themselves apart--or wish to. These boots are made for walking and much, much more.
Jeff Williams is a senior sportswriter for New York Newsday.
Sources for Cowboy Boots
Justin Boot Co.
Fort Worth, Texas
Tony Lama Boot Co.
El Paso, Texas
Nocoma Boot Co.
Rios of Mercedes
San Antonio, Texas
El Paso, Texas
Alberta Boot Co.
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Bell Custom Boots
San Antonio, Texas
Cavenders Boot City
Six stores in Texas
Six stores in Texas