Published: December 2008THE GENUINE ARTICLE
Handmade Cowboy Boots
Photo: Cowboy boots
These boots were made for walkin'—and showin' off in style.
By Laura Morelli
Photo by Joanna B. Pinneo

The shelves of the bootmaker's shop are an explosion of color—red stars, grape-colored leaves, Oklahoma's sky blue state flag, a tangle of fuchsia roses. Multihued handmade cowboy boots, stacked haphazardly, contrast with the workshop's humble interior, with its cement floor, drab walls, creaking screen door, and the earthy aroma of leather hides.

This must be West Texas's most refreshing surprise—a plethora of artisan bootmakers who still make cowboy footwear by hand. Few are on the beaten path, and their shops are not fancy, but from them emerge cowboy boots that can be considered not just indelible icons of American style, but true works of art.

Behind today's American cowboy boot are thousands of years of equestrian footwear. From ancient Asian mounted warriors to medieval European nobles, as long as horses have been domesticated, riders have wrapped their feet and legs in animal hides to protect them. The Mexican vaquero tradition helped shape the development of the boot that 19th-century Anglo cowboys wore while herding the cattle across the central and western states. Initially, function was more important than form. Early American cowboys wore flat- or low-heeled, round-toed boots, sometimes recycled from Civil War uniforms. Later, they enlisted shoemakers to help craft a particular weather-, thorn-, and snake-proof boot, with a higher heel to help secure their feet in the stirrups. By the 1870s, the basic form of the cowboy boot we know today had evolved.

Bootmakers established workshops across Texas and the western states. By the 1920s individual craftsmen had made names for themselves based on particular embellishments like hand-tooling, embroidery, inlays, exotic skins, and bright colors. By the time Western movies hit the silver screen in the 1930s, cowboy boots were already popular, but Hollywood's romanticized depictions of the American West helped make the cowboy boot standard fare, not just for cowherds but for everyone. In the 1980s, rock bands sent the old cowboy boot to new heights of fame. Today, handmade cowboy boots remain popular with Hollywood and Nashville stars, many of whom boast impressive personal collections.

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