In step with vintage cowboy boots

Montie Montana’s boots and Bohlin spurs. Montana (1910-98) was a rodeo and cowboy film star. Photo courtesy of High Noon Western Americana

NEW YORK – From their pointy toes to their tall shafts and highly decorative stitching, cowboy boots have been a staple of the American West since settlers first arrived from the east. A true workhorse of an object, cowboy boots have steadily grown in popularity as a fashion accessory.

Bootmakers, from small shops and individual artists to large companies, created boots that were foremost utilitarian but also elegant and fashionable. The craze for cowboy boots practically exploded overnight after the 1980 Urban Cowboy movie starring John Travolta, which made cowboy fashion mainstream. And as legions of cowboy boot owners and collectors all over the world – not just in the West – can attest, one does not merely own a pair, one often has an emotional connection to a special pair of boots that few ordinary shoes inspire.

In a podcast for the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Guthrie, Okla. bootmaker Ray Dorwart described the elegance of a cowboy boot: “A boot should be like a figure of a Coke bottle or a figure of a gorgeous woman; the overall lines of a boot should be pleasing to the eye, a narrowness just above the ankle looks nice but also is what locks your foot into your heel and doesn’t let allow the foot to slide down, especially when you have a taller heel.”

Country music star Hank Williams’ custom-made cowboy boots, featuring a white eagle with engraved H’s, sold for $8,000 at Guernsey’s in October 2014. Photo courtesy of Guernsey’s and LiveAuctioneers

Michael R. Grauer, the museum’s McCasland chair of Cowboy Culture/Curator of Cowboy Collections and Western Art, said common decorative motifs on cowboy boots include flowers, butterflies, eagles or bird wings. “It gets wilder and wilder the closer you get to the 1980s when things went nuts,” he said. “Initially, stitching on the uppers on a cowboy boot was to help it remain stiff so it didn’t flop over. Then there were geometric, usually very simple spirals in stitching and they got more creative.”

Longtime cowboy boot collector Jennifer June, author of Cowboy Boots: The Art & Sole, who has a website to educate buyers here, said decorative symbols are interesting as they have changed over the years. “Oil derricks used to be a big symbol of striking it rich so you see oil derrick boots, and bucking broncos, a symbol that has been around for a long time. A bronco is still one that people really like because it has adventure and danger quality to it,” she said. Flags, patriotic symbols and images of the Western landscapes like a cactus are also popular.

NASCAR champion Richard Petty-worn black cowboy boots made by M.L. Leddy’s brought $7,000 in May 2018 at Julien’s Auctions. Photo courtesy of Julien’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“A piece of what makes these boots so attractive is that fashions and colors go in and out of style. There is just something so beautiful about vintage boots where they may not be the same color that they started off with but they have aged into some beautiful greens and browns and things like that. They are just beautiful and they only got that way because of time and wear.”

When looking for vintage boots, one has many choices. There were companies making boots, many handmade, that are highly sought after today like Justin, Nocona, Tony Lama, Lucchese, Leddys, Blucher and Olsen-Stelzer as well as custom bootmakers. Texas and Oklahoma were hotbeds for this trade and by 1930, Amarillo, Texas, had 30 bootmakers plying their craft. Among bootmakers whose boots are quite desirable today are Paul Bond, Willie Lusk, Tex Robin and Ray Jones.

These boots were made by the Hyer Boot Co., Olathe, Kansas, about 1922 for early rodeo star Florence Hughes Randolph (1898-1971). The spurs are by Crockett Bit & Spur Co., Kansas City, Mo., circa 1925. Photo courtesy of National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum

While the bootmaker was recognized for his skill in building the boot, the stitcher in each boot shop was the person whose elegant stitching made the boot a fashion icon. “It became almost a status symbol to be a great boot stitcher,” said Grauer. Many boots had labels to identify the maker but those who have handled many cowboy boots can often identify by sight a maker based on the stitching.

Nineteenth century boots are highly collectable but they are hard to find. “Everybody wants an 1860s boot because they just don’t exist except in museum collections,” he said, adding that when one gets into the 1920s and ’30s, boots are a bit easier to find. “By the time you have peewees in the ’30s and ’40s and then the shortie tops made popular by Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and all the Westerns on TV in the late ’50s, that is a whole other pop culture element.”

Cowboy boots, circa 1895, maker unknown. Photo courtesy of National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum

June noted there are two groups of collectors: those who wear their boots and those who favor highly decorative ones, often with ornate silverwork and tooling, that are display only. Grauer said he owns 12 pairs but doesn’t consider himself a collector and he wears them all.

“For vintage boots, it really gets down to someone sees a boot and they just love the design or color. Sometimes it’s because they are beat up and they just look really great,” June said. Her favorite pair is a pair of Trujillo brothers boots given to her from a friend who got them from Tyler Beard, who wrote the quintessential book on the subject, The Cowboy Boot Book.

It’s common among cowboy boot junkies that special boots get passed down either through families or collectors who appreciate them.

A final note: never wash your boots with soap and water. Use a non-alkaline leather cleaner, rub gently with a soft cloth and rinse with water. Let the boot air dry and don’t use a heat source to speed the process.