The History of Cowboy Boots: From the Wild West to the Louis Vuitton Runway

From presidents to country music icons, the cowboy boot has established itself as a long-standing staple of culture and fashion.

While many of today’s fashion staples once served utilitarian purposes before going through different adaptions to follow fashion trends, the cowboy boots‘ original silhouette remains strong. From the arched and slanted heel, which historically was most commonly made of stacked leather, to the thick, somewhat unforgiving leather initially intended to protect shins, the Western-style boot still holds true to much of its original silhouette.

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The original cowboy boot

As the name denotes, the original silhouette was intended for use by cowboys who needed a shoe with a toe bed narrow enough to fit into the stirrups of a saddle, and enough ankle support to prevent any twisting or turning that often came along with the job. The angled heel is also a testament to the boot’s intended use, as its slanted style kept it from slipping down in the stirrups. They also needed to be tough enough to withstand the wear of weather and long days — all while protecting both the foot and the calf from impact.

Tintype Photo Of Three Working Cowboys Ca 1870S - Early Tintype Of Three Real Working Cowboys With Great Hats, Real Cowboy Boots And One Has A Great Duster On. (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
Working cowboys, circa 1870s. Getty Images

Who wore cowboy boots first?

While there’s no exact documentation surrounding the very first Cowboy boots, they are thought to have first appeared in North America in Mexico. This would date back to the late 1500s and early 1600s, when the Spanish are thought to have brought the boot over.

Their boots are thought to have looked very similar to styles today, meaning that they most likely featured tall, calf-hugging leather and a stacked leather heel. The stitching up the calf is also thought to have initially prevented the leather from bending or sagging around the leg.

The original Vaquero boots were also often embellished with hand embroidery and colorful patterns, like some of the cowboy boots in fashion today.

Vintage illustration of a pair of fancy cowboy boots. (Photo by Found Image Holdings/Corbis via Getty Images)
Vintage illustration of a pair of fancy cowboy boots. Corbis via Getty Images

Cowboy boots in pop culture: 

As the style was popularized throughout North America, the shoe style—often made of snake, ostrich, alligator or kangaroo leather—has also managed to maintain a stronghold in pop culture. They immediately appeared in silent western films throughout the 20s and 30s, and carried over into the popularity boom of the film genre.

The boots’ influence didn’t stop there. Much like other fashion trends, the boots still spike in popularity every few years.

WINDSOR, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 02:  Diana, Princess Of Wales At Guards Polo Club.  The Princess Is Casually Dressed In A Sweatshirt With The British Lung Foundation Logo On The Front, Jeans, Boots And A Baseball Cap.  (Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)
Diana, Princess of Wales, wearing cowboy boots in 1988. Tim Graham Photo Library via Get

Princess Diana famously donned the boots in 1988 at the Guards Polo Club in an outfit that was both casual and effortlessly cool. The boots then carried over into the new millennium when Madonna released her iconic “Don’t Tell Me” music video in 2000, which paid homage to both the boot and its original use.

The modern-day cowboy boots

Today, luxe fashion houses like Prada and Dries Van Noten (and lots of others) have released versions of the shoe for current seasons. Louis Vuitton’s fall 2024 menswear runway show was packed with styles ranging from glitzy cap-toed versions to more rounded-toe glossy styles.

Louis Vuitton, Paris, Paris fashion week, men, fall 2024, men's, mens shoes
Louis Vuitton’s cowboy boots from fall 2024. Corbis via Getty Images

While some of the more modern boots may have a slightly higher heel and shinier leather finish than the originals, they still largely hold true to the original silhouette. Modern styles often continue to incorporate stitching and designs on the calf of the boots as well — even if the calves themselves are slightly lower or higher than the original versions.

Its continual emergence in pop culture speaks to the shoe’s democratic and absolutely timeless appeal. Not only are today’s versions more comfortable since they have to provide less support, but designers have brought creative versions to runways and mall stores alike, continually making them a fashion staple that just about anyone can indulge in.

What is the oldest cowboy boot company?

Although it’s difficult to determine which company created the first cowboy boots in the U.S., two heritage footwear companies—Tony Lama and Fyre—were leading the way.

Tony Lama cowboy boots.
Tony Lama cowboy boots. Yve Assad

Tony Lama, founded in 1911, is one of the most traditional manufacturers of Western boots in the U.S. The brand became popular in the 1940s with its kangaroo skin boots.

Frye Company, founded in 1863 and the oldest American shoe manufacturer, released its first cowboy boot, the Rancher, in the 1940s.

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