“In these anxious days,” wrote Aaron Latham in the original Esquire article that inspired the movie Urban Cowboy, “some Americans have turned for salvation to God, others have turned to fad prophets.” But more and more people, Latham noted, were turning to the cowboy for guidance.
When Latham’s article was published in 1978, only about a quarter of the U.S. population reported that they could trust their government “at least most of the time.” Radically shaken by the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, barreled under stagflation at home, and facing the threat of nuclear holocaust abroad, the public, unable to put their faith in their nation’s institutions, were increasingly putting it in one of its most durable myths.
Is it any surprise then that when Urban Cowboy premiered two years later, the movie ushered in a cowboy boot craze so frenzied that, at its height, farmers and ranchers reportedly struggled to get their hands on the footwear. It took the rise of Lycra-blend aerobics gear to finally tip the scales of ’80s fashion.
For over a century and a half now, the cowboy boot has continued to rise up in the nation’s culture like a Rorschach test, reflecting back to us ideas of what it means to be American. But though the cowboy boot is often used to suggest one version of Americanness, that of John Wayne and the Marlboro Man, its history should remind us that the boots were made for everyone.
The iconic cowhide work boot was not destined to be affixed in the American popular imagination this way, just like the term “cowboy” itself was not originally associated with the ideas it now summons. A Revolutionary War-era holdover, cowboys first referred to British Tories using guerilla tactics against the rebel colonists. The boots that would become synonymous with them emerged as the term evolved a century later, as cowboys, of many and multiple races and ethnicities, began driving livestock on the cattle trails from Texas to Kansas railheads for transport to markets in the East. Some of the earliest working cowboys were Black, as Katie Nodjimbadem has noted in Smithsonian magazine. The reason there became so many Black cowboys (historians estimate that in Texas they made up as many as one in four) was because the job was one of the few dignified professions open to them after the Civil War.
Inspiration for the cowboy boot itself was global: It derived from the short-heeled square-toed English Wellington boot worn by cavalry and artillery drivers during the American Civil War, the German Hessian knee-high boot, and the Vaquero riding boot worn in Mexican ranchero culture. As the footwear evolved beyond its initial utilitarian function, it increasingly incorporated Native American designs, such as fringed buckskin.
This shared heritage is what led the design historian Sonya Abrego to characterize the cowboy boot as a reflection of “the material index of the diversity of the American West,” in her 2022 book Westernwear: Postwar American Fashion and Culture.
But it’s the parallel story around the cowboy boot, spun out of traveling Wild West vaudeville shows and Westerns, that’s proven more enduring.
Wild West shows were already mythologizing the cowboys and their boots by the time the railroad made its way to Texas, sunsetting the era of the widespread cattle drive that the footwear was created for. These productions increasingly linked them to the nation’s vanishing frontier (which was officially “closed” by the Bureau of the Census in 1890), and to a whitewashed narrative of America’s genocidal manifest destiny. The most popular, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West, which began in 1883, ran for three decades in the U.S. and overseas, its story of the West often understood by its audiences to be fact not fiction. Native actors were cast as heels, while romanticized cowboys, increasingly portrayed by white actors on the stage, were held up as symbols of rugged individualism.
Mail-order catalogs of the day began to sell this narrative to consumers as the boots shifted beyond their solely utilitarian purpose (as early as the 1890s, ad copy began calling attention to not just their functionality but their “unique, showy appearance”). Hollywood did much of the rest.
With the rise of the Westerns, the footwear underwent a movie makeover in the ’40s and ’50s, emerging out of it with even more colors and artistry and a newly signature pointed toe. The revamped boot was popularized by Western stars like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, the “King of Cowboys” and “Queen of the West,” who portrayed one idea of the cowboy. Viewers who saw their exploits on screen created a mass demand for the boots to emulate it. (The trend even inaugurated a new concept, the “sidewalk cattleman”—a name for people who wore cowboy boots but did not own cattle.)
Cowboy boot booms have come and gone since. Each time the cowboy boot returns in vogue, one can see their artisanry and craft, which continues to be reimagined and reinvented by successive waves of fashion. (Already in the 1950s, country stars were popularizing the rhinestone cowboy boot, now part and parcel of the Nashville bachelorette circuit.) But it can be hard to see the boot, and its style evolution, in a neutral way because it remains so saddled with the heavy load of representing the contested values of a nation.
That tangled history of the cowboy boot is why I’m still trying to figure out what I want to say with my own pair shelved in my closet.
I got them in the late 2000s when friends and I started going line dancing at the college night at Borderline Bar and Grill, a country western bar near my hometown in Ventura County, California. The boots were not just an aesthetic purchase; the heel, which once allowed cowboys to feel secure in stirrups, also allows for twisting, sliding, and stomping on the dance floor.
We loved the big ballads and achy heartbreak numbers the bar featured, dancing until we got tired and then playing the songs again on the car rides home, sweaty from trying to keep up with all the step work we’d put our shoes through.
But as much as I enjoyed going to the bar, I never felt comfortable laying a claim to the boots I wore there. I couldn’t see myself in their story, as modern country music often suggested one idea of who they were for. As I watched the genre continue to go in the direction the cowboy boot went in vaudeville, I wasn’t sure I even wanted to invite that association. More and more when I’d turn on a country radio station, I’d hear pandering songs that felt, at best, like a parody of the genre’s best songwriting traditions, and at worst, like dog whistles about who belonged in those small towns and dirt roads they sang about.
I can’t remember the last time I went to Borderline before a shooter opened fire there, killing 12 people, including himself, during a college night like the ones my friends and I used to go to. That was 2018. My local community fixture was suddenly part of the nation’s horrific, never-ending mass shooting nightmare.
Cowboy boots have been on my mind since, especially as they go through another trend cycle today.
I want to think that there’s a hopeful story in the boots that speaks to the diversity of the American West that the design historian Abrego wrote about. Not to mention the complicated story about life and myth in the U.S. that the boots can uniquely shed light on.
Though I haven’t been wearing my old pair again just yet, I know that I want to. For now, they sit at home, a story of America waiting for me, when I’m ready to put them on.