In 1962 my family left Houston for the boondocks near Tomball (population: 1,713), where I encountered my first real-life cowboys. Southeast Texas was not the fabled cattle-ranching area that West Texas was, but the men had all the cowboy characteristics I had seen in books and on the silver screen: chiseled, sunbaked features, razor-cut short hair, work-worn boots, hats, and belts. Many of the younger men had their names embossed on the backs of their belts, and the names seemed to match their faces—“Buck,” “Roy,” and “Jake”—names that sounded cowboy. I came to associate name belts with real cowboys, and my fear of being labeled a Rexall wrangler dissuaded me from getting one of my own.
I assumed that name belts were as authentic as cowpunching itself. Nope. Belts did not become common among Texas cowboys until the turn of the century, and name belts not until more than fifty years later. Levi Strauss introduced jeans in 1853, but they had buttons for suspenders. Belts gradually grew in popularity, but even as late as 1896 the Sears, Roebuck catalog featured 21 styles of suspenders and only 5 belts, declaring, “Belts are popular, more so this season than ever before.” Not until 1922 did all of Levi’s jeans have belt loops.
History does not record who created the first name belt. It was probably an enterprising old saddler forced into retirement as cowboys went the way of the Longhorn. He realized the profit to be made off the nostalgia of a vanishing breed and, betting on the vanity of his customers, tooled the very first “Tex” on the back of a belt. The name belt has since become to Western wear what the personalized license plate is to the automobile.
Today a cowboy belt is a basic component in dressing the part. The majority of us who dress cowboy do so as dilettantes—Texans, yes, but Texans