There is probably no other footwear that conjures up a stronger image than the cowboy boot. Even as I mention it now, what comes to mind? Maybe you’re thinking of that classic square-jawed, John Wayne-esque paragon of masculinity from old Westerns. Maybe it’s the Old West, that time where tumbleweed, nigh-empty saloons, and weather-worn men with dubious morals put the “Wild” in “wild West.” Maybe it’s something as simple as hard work, dependability, and confidence. But make no mistake, cowboy boots have strode their way into pop culture as a fusion of dependable work shoes and stylish footwear.
Technically, cowboy boots are a type of riding boot that rides high up the calf, and usually a inch-high heel or so. These were invented and perfected by the vaqueros of Spain, and later, the Americas. Developed from European military boots, the high boot shaft is to prevent the calf chafing as the rider bounced around on the horse. The heels were to prevent the foot from sliding too far into the stirrups. Considering these, it’s clear that from the beginning that cowboy boots were built mainly for function, not style.
Given the typically harsh conditions cowboy boots go through beyond the usual wear-and-tear, most boots must be cleaned, moisturized, and polished to ensure the boots’ overall condition and long-term survival. But what are they actually made of? Well, as with any other type of clothing, you work with what you’ve got. These include…
This goes back to the origin of the cowboy boot itself. Since vaqueros and cowboys often worked with, well, cows, the most durable material they could easily get their hands on was calfskin or cowskin leather. This leather is the most common material for cowboy boots, as well as the recognized standard for comfort and durability in the industry.
Calfskin leather, a type of cowhide, has a tighter hide than cowhide, yet it’s finer as well. This makes it a more comfortable type of leather; however, it also makes the leather more susceptible to cuts and scuffs. Because of this, it’s all the important to properly maintain your boots using the aforementioned method: cleaning, moisturizing, and polishing.
If your boots are pebble-grain instead of smooth-surface, you’ll want to rinse the shoe afterward, to prevent wax buildup inside the boot’s grooves.
Horsehide boots are similar to cowhide, but they also have distinct properties of their own as well. They’re predominantly seen in North America and Western Europe (fittingly, where horses are common), Horsehide is tougher than cowhide, and has traditionally been used for more physically demanding labor -- the “grunt work” that cowboys are famous for. They’ve historically also been used to coat baseballs and the leather jackets or motorcyclists, due in part to their toughness, but also their elasticity.
Because of their durability, they generally have a longer life, and don’t require as much maintenance as cowhide. However, this has made them more expensive in recent years, and they’ve been replaced by cowhide in many areas.
Kangaroo leather is entirely an Australian export, and its thickness and tightness make it one of the stronger leathers in the industry. Its structure is that of closely intertwining fibers that crisscross in many directions, which creates the toughness kangaroo hide is known for. (In fact, this same principle is used in some bulletproofing materials.)
Kangaroo hide is similar to cowhide in texture, and though it is slightly tougher, it still requires occasional maintenance. Because of its properties, some Olympic athletes use kangaroo leather shoes for increased performance.
Ostrich hide is becoming more popular as a source of leather, and for good reason. Out of all the leathers considered exotic (because of course there’s no list of what’s “exotic” and what’s not) ostrich is particularly soft and comfortable, yet durable and easy to maintain. Most ostrich hide comes from the back (where quills make for a rough hide), the side (which is smoother), or the leg (which has a scaly pattern similar to lizard skin.
The notoriously tough hide of alligators has seen a surge in popularity worldwide in the last few decades, mainly as a dress boot from the Southern United States. They retain the hide’s hardness, connected by softer membranes between the scales, and if treated right, they can last for decades.
Crocodile boots are nearly identical to alligator boots. (There’s a tell in the hide – a tiny pinhole in the middle of each scale.) However, because crocodile are not domestically farmed like alligators, their leather is less available, and more expensive.
Lizard boots can be found worldwide, typically from the iguana or ringtail. Most boots are made from the lizard’s belly, where the most evenly-patterned leather is found, and its structure is very similar to alligator hide. They also tend to have a longer shelf life than alligator hide, leading to a higher demand of lizard hide. This has depleted the lizard populations in some areas.
Snakeskin leather is largely made from python, anaconda, or rattlesnake, and each snake seems to come with its own benefits. Python snakeskin seems to be the strongest, while rattlesnake has a tougher finish. Watersnake is more delicate, better for dresswear.
Snakeskin is especially durable, and is widely available for a range of footwear. All types of snakeskin yellow with age, like an old newspaper, and though we can’t stop it, proper long-term care can provide a great boot for the long haul.
Sharkskin is very rough and ragged, and tough enough to be widely considered scuff-proof. As with every animal on this list, each species of shark has slightly different skin, although most professionals in the industry just lump them together as simply sharkskin. They’re also less breathable, but more waterproof as well.
Stingray skin is gravelly and thick in calcium, giving a pearl-like appearance to the natural hide. The skin is tough enough to break needles, and many leather workers refuse to use it. However, like sharkskin, it’s virtually scratch-resistant, and waterproof.