I purchased my first pair of cowgirl boots more than three years ago. When I moved from Oregon to Austin to attend the University of Texas, my great-uncle, who lived in Dallas in the seventies, insisted that I needed a pair of boots. As a high school graduation gift, he financed my trip to the Tecovas store to secure “the Jamie,” a classic cowhide style, in light brown. It took me a year before I felt confident enough to make that quintessential Lone Star fashion statement, but once I finally pulled the boots on—to attend a Longhorns football game—I felt united with the lifelong wearers around me. Soon after, my go-to outfit for a Sunday brunch, concerts, and the occasional night of two-stepping was a white dress and my trusty boots.
Over the past few decades, Northerners have caught on to what Texans have known since long before I took that first tentative step in my Tecovas: cowboy boots are stylish, status-symbolizing, surprisingly comfortable footwear. But as I see our state’s beloved boots reach a peak in popularity as they grace the runways of New York Fashion Week, become a TikTok hashtag with more than 500 million views, and show up on the feet of it girl Sydney Sweeney at Coachella, two things fill me with a sense of dread. When the fashion gods inevitably deem cowboy boots passé (much like fellow practical-turned-popular Doc Martens and ballet flats) how will we rehabilitate their reputation? And, more importantly, now that cowboy boots have been mainstreamed across the U.S., what can Texans—and I, as an adoptive one—wear to define ourselves?
After the grueling task of staring at photos of various cowboys on the internet and ruling out the obvious answer of the cowboy hat, which I, for one, simply cannot pull off on a day-to-day basis, the answer shone back at me in bright silver. It’s as useful as footwear, even easier to customize, and not too intrusive unless you want it to be: Texas needs the belt buckle.
The belt buckle has been worn and loved across many Western states, but Texans have made it our own. The infamous four-piece set worn by the Texas Rangers came into existence after changes to the Rangers’ pistols made them too heavy to be stuck in the waistband in the mid-1800s. Almost a century later, as suspender buttons evolved into belt loops, buckles found their place on the ranch. At rodeos, cowboys competed on the backs of bulls for trophy buckles. More recently, the largest belt buckle in the world debuted in Dallas (although Texas does take a bit of a hit here, as Montana Silversmiths designed the buckle). Even Elon Musk debuted the “Giga Texas Belt Buckle,” a shiny, silver-finished piece emblazoned with a big, fat Tesla T in the middle of the lone star.
The most authentic buckle may be that worn by a no-nonsense cowboy or a rodeo champ, but if the richest man in the world can wear one, so can you. The statement has trickled down to those of us who have abandoned the backcountry for the cocktail bar. A belt buckle looks as correct on a pair of Levis as it does on dress pants. And while it may be more popular among men, belts know no gender. Beautiful bits of turquoise and conchos make me feel like I’m wearing a string of medallions.
In San Antonio, maker Trey Scott embodies the mantra that belt buckles are for everyone. He fashions pieces ranging from the classic Ranger style to styles he sells to tuxedo shops. His creations are adorned with lone stars, hearts, and the occasional welded-on prickly pear, sometimes bordered by precious metals twisted into a sort of rope around the edges. “It’s a chance for people who are not around livestock and ranching all the time to have a piece of that,” Scott said. “It’s a way to express yourself. I don’t wear jewelry. . . . But I wear a buckle. That’s my statement.”
Any Texan can find belt buckles in throngs at Western stores, but the cheaper pieces are often made from stamps or molds and wear out after a year or so. Handcrafted buckles come at more of a premium, but their makers consider them works of Texan tradition. Midland’s Mike Pardue learned the craft of spur- and buckle-making in the 1980s, when he crafted his first buckle with a hacksaw and tin snips while working as a ranch hand. Over time, Pardue developed his own bluing liquid, the same chemical solution brushed on to create the deep black finish on handguns. You can buy a premade version, but it doesn’t quite live up to the standards of Pardue, who muddled through a series of failures before landing on his perfect formula. As Scott told me, “I heard somebody say, ‘How do you make a really cool belt buckle? You make a five-gallon bucket full of bad ones.’ ”
Eager customers sometimes wait as long as nine months for one of Pardue’s buckles, which can cost up to $850. His pieces are filled with Western paisley, with swirls delicately engraved in silver and steel. Some of his buckles have designs that surround chunks of turquoise that sit like crown jewels in the centers. All of his engravings are done by hand, and because of the niche nature of buckle-making, many tools are also custom. Even the backs of the buckles have a unique flair. Sometimes they are inscribed with lyrics from whatever song played on the radio while Pardue worked in the shop. Other times, it’s a favorite line from Ray Wylie Hubbard: “The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, I have really good days.”
Buckle-maker Leo Smith, a former Texas judge, remembers the height of Western mania brought on by John Travolta in Urban Cowboy in the eighties and has watched Western wear cycle in and out of fashion in the years since. He credits part of the current resurgence to the show Yellowstone, to which he supplied more than twenty buckles this year. He has the same advice for cowboys real and fictional: get a buckle made of a sturdy metal, hand engraved, with good weight to it. Then personalize, whether with bits of turquoise or a favorite saying. (One customer, for example, had Smith engrave a buckle with the memorable line “Big cat daddy bull ride.”) He does, however, draw the line at belts with rhinestones. “I do not do what I call the flash and trash.”
Just like my high school graduation Tecovas, belt buckles celebrate accomplishments, be it the longest bull ride or landing a part on Taylor Sheridan’s latest. Fashion is all about creative expression, and buckles fit the bill: your name, your brand, and your design, whether you prefer a traditional ranch logo or an intricate mix of turquoise and silver. Smith ensures me that buckles, like most Western wear, will dip out of national popularity again. This week, my time as a Texas student came to an end. I’ll keep my trusty boots with me on my next adventure, but perhaps the best graduation present to myself would be one I could wear every day as a reminder of the Lone Star State. My very own buckle in German silver, decorated with paisley swirls and bits of turquoise. I know who to call.