Until the early 1900s, American men did not wear belts at all. They wore suspenders. Oddly enough, the mental archetype possessed by most Americans with respect to cowboys involves giant, 6-inch-wide silver belt buckles.
So this got me thinking: What cultural phenomenon caused belt buckles to be introduced into the American notion of the cowboy?
It didn’t take long to find out that the belt buckle and the cowboy first met in Western film. The silent westerns of the 1920s began to feature cowboys with belts, since belts were commonly being worn by men in this era. Tom Mix sported a mini belt buckle – a small silver one that is standard for most belts today.
Image Credit: Silents are Golden
In 1936, we see John Wayne wearing a 2 inch square buckle in his role in the “Oregon Trail.” It wasn’t until 1950 though that we begin to see the 3 inch long, 2 inch tall, iconic buckle that John would debut in “Rio Grande.” This same buckle, supposedly one from his personal collection, would appear again in “El Dorado” (1966) and “True Grit” in 1969.
Image Credit: Cine Geek
When the first absolutely enormous buckle appeared on screen, it was 1980. And it was attached to the pants of none other than the singing, dancing John Travolta of “Urban Cowboy.” I would venture to guess that the costume designers had been doing a bit of research into the modern Western lifestyle and noticed the surge of popularity with souvenir belt buckles from the rodeo, and also with the large trophy belt buckles worn by broncobusters and bullriders. After this film came out, you begin to see the idea of what a cowboy is supposed to wear dramatically change as a new, younger generation begins to go crazy for these massive decorations.
Image Credit: National Geographic Stock
Today, a remake of the popular 80s movie “Footloose” will hit theaters. The cast all wear cowboy boots, and the lead female wears a nicely sized silver and gold buckle to hold up her tiny denim shorts. There are hats and plaid and denim for miles. If we’ve learned one thing about trends, it’s that they tend to repeat themselves. Think we’re going to see a return of cowboy sensibility into everyday dress? You can bet that pound of silver attached to your belt on it!
Image Credit: Country Telegraph