About two weeks ago, the Huffington Post featured an article about the King of Bhutan showing off a “cowboy inspired look.”
If you scroll down to the comment section, you will find lots of people talking about the boots, the article, and the photos. You’ll find equally as many comments from readers who feel that the article was too ethnocentric and imperialist.
Image Credit: Huffington Post
Whether you had a problem with the HuffPo’s article or not, the comments and the article combine to create some very interesting brain fodder for the wearers of cowboy boots. For the intents and purposes of this article, let’s just call knee-high boots, of any fabric, with any kind of heel, a “cowboy boot.” It will just make this all a lot easier. Yes, I realize that American cowboys did not invent the cowboy boot, but you get the idea. It’s like a basketball player getting annoyed that someone called his sneakers a “tennis shoe.” Let’s not get hung up on nomenclature here people.
Anywho, to cowboy boot wearers in the United States, it may come as a total surprise that what they regard as the most American of footwear choices is actually far from American in origin: the “cowboy boot” did not originate in the U.S. It goes back further than when Justin and Ariat boots started duking it out over who was the better manufacturer. It’s older than Texas and Kansas each claiming primacy in boot making. Actually, boots didn’t originate anywhere close to the United States, or have anything to do with lassos and guitars and lonesome western movies. Wrong continent, wrong era, wrong occupation.
The precursor to what we know as the “cowboy boot” actually comes from…
Yes. The Huns. Yes, Atilla and his band of marauding, nomadic warriors. They may not have been the first, but the historical evidence points to the Huns as being the first horsemen to use stirrups. If you wear boots, you probably know the reason your boots are shaped the way they are: it all goes back to the interplay between stirrup and heel. The Huns wore boots with pointed toes and 2 inch heels that made their feet able to stay in the stirrups more easily. If the Hun rider was particularly wealthy, he would wear red boots. The expert horsemanship of this warrior band allowed the Huns to expand their 5th century empire all the way to Gaul (which is now France, Switzerland, part of northern Italy, and a little bit of Germany and the Netherlands).
Did I mention that the Huns came from the steppes of Central Asia?
And that they rode horses…and conquered…all the way to what is now France?
The Huns brought the boot technology that allowed them to conquer well established nations to Eastern Europe and beyond. The Moors incorporated the boot into their own riding style. Then, the Moors brought the boot and stirrup to what is now known as Spain. The Spanish came to the new world, and the very first cowboys on the North American continent appeared…in Mexico. These vaqueros, who lived and worked in California, were the biggest influence on cowboy culture.
Back to the photo and post in question. Bhutanese people have traditionally worn shoes known as “Tso-Lham.” These boots share many of the same characteristics of American Cowboy boots. Why?
Another pair of boots owned by the same King, made in the traditional fashion.
Image Credit: Karelbu Press
I’m going to guess…
The Huns also invaded south-central Asia in 350 A.D. Although Bhutan is pretty hard to travel in (flanked by the Himalayas to the north and dense jungle to the south), there is archaeological evidence to suggest that the Huns at least made it close enough to Bhutan to influence the footwear in the area. Since the majority of historical records about Bhutan were kept in a building in the capital (which burned down in the 1800s), this is just a guess. For all we know, the Huns could have learned their boot-making ways from the Bhutanese people. The traditions could have originated independently of one another. Who knows? The history and controversy surrounding the riding boot serves as testimony that we, as a global family, really are deeply connected.