It’s not just their cuban heels that are heavy: cowboy boots are freighted with associations. They are James Dean in Giant, reclining under a hazy Texan sky, Robert Redford haloed by a cloud of dust in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Patricia Arquette in the highway phone booth in True Romance. They are a presage to violence in No Country for Old Men. In western showdowns, the camera zooms in on them. They epitomise the wild wild west, a dangerous place of sharpshooters and outlaws.
They can be kitsch – Dolly Parton’s are pastel-hued and decorated with flowers – or political, worn by Ronald Reagan on the campaign trail and are collected by Arnold Schwarzenegger as a symbol of his allegiance to the US. They represent American pride, the horrors of US history, and the worst of the US present: in October, a pair of cowboy boots decorated with stars and stripes, which had been abandoned by survivor Stephen Vicelja, became a symbol of the Las Vegas massacre.
They are a potent – and complicated – emblem of America, resonating just as the meaning of “the United States” is more complex than ever. There is a chance that you will be wearing a pair in 2018 – yes, even you, style lone ranger. Because I have seen the future of fashion – on the spring/summer catwalks, on the feet of early adopters – and it has spurs on its heels.
The return of cowboy boots started, strangely, at Hood by Air last September, when the streetwear brand sent some surreal iterations down its catwalk. These appeared to face the back and the front simultaneously and they didn’t take off, even in the age of doublethink. They did spawn a thousand memes, however, and a seed was planted. Two of the fashion industry’s most influential designers – Raf Simons at Calvin Klein and Phoebe Philo at Céline – saddled up to the trend.
Raf Simons’ cowboy boots are part of an exploration of the dark side of Americana. As Alistair O’Neill, professor of fashion history and theory at Central Saint Martins, points out, Simons’ work references Richard Prince’s art, which reworks the Marlboro Man advertisements, and is no wholesome stars-and-stripes celebration. “It is a representation of the American man that was about individuality and a sense of adventure, a dream which is hollow, essentially,” he says. Simons’ spring/summer 2018 collection was genuinely scary – inspired by horror films – and the boots’ points peeked out from beneath satin trousers or were covered in blood-like splatters.
At Maison Margiela, they were deconstructed, as though the boot’s shaft had been torn off, and accessorised with delicate diamante spurs. Givenchy’s new designer, Clare Waight Keller, put them on models and wore a black shiny pair herself. Even when designers didn’t show cowboy boots exactly, they showed cowboy-ish boots: stompers with decorative wing tips and gleaming toe caps at Marques Almeida; cutout versions comprising different coloured sections of leather at Acne Studios; sparkly and metallic interpretations at Coach; sturdy versions with buckles and straps at Chloé. All had a cuban heel, upturned sole and an elongated yee-haw toe.
The cowboy boot is the ultimate marriage of functionality and dandification, says Tony Glenville, creative director of the school of media and communication at the London College of Fashion. “They became longer up the leg to protect rider’s ankles; they had that funny angled heel for riding a horse or striding on uneven terrain,” he says. “But they became pretty quite early on. Even in the 1900s, you see them becoming decorative, more of a trophy item, with embroidery and the use of complicated skins.”
City slickers have worn them for decades, with their popularity often surging at times when they have featured on the silver screen, according to O’Neill. They were part of “the post-hippy aesthetic” of London in the 70s, when influential Hollywood films referencing 50s Americana – American Graffiti and Badlands – were released.
In womenswear, the look has often been more upbeat, even camp. A key reference, says O’Neill, is Thierry Mugler’s western-themed spring/summer 1992 collection, in which Ivanka Trump appeared on the catwalk – proving that you are never more than two fashion references away from the Donald – resplendent in cow print. At around the same time, Patricia Arquette’s Alabama Whitman wore bright blue cowboy boots with a turquoise bra in True Romance. In the late 90s, Miuccia Prada did cowboy boots at Miu Miu. By 2000, the look was still going strong – Madonna was in her Stetson period and the ladettes were on board. Cowboy boots suggested “being a free wheeler, an idea that you are someone who is thinking about the prairie when actually pounding the pavement – positioning yourself elsewhere,” says O’Neill. “A look that came before festival chic.”
Anyone who came of age in the 90s or the 00s may remember cowboy boots as a counterpoint to female nudity – a sort of sexy wild west aesthetic seen on Britney Spears, who wore hers with a bikini, or Victoria Beckham, who wore them with hair extensions and hotpants, or Kylie Minogue, in pink patterned knickers with a tan pair on a cover of the Face.
This time the approach is a lot more covered-up – think of street-style star Veronika Heilbrunner, who pairs black cowboy-style ankle boots with flowing skirts, or the vintage photograph of Julia Roberts in black cowboy boots, ripped blue jeans and a polo neck.
In the post-Stan Smiths era, their practical appeal is pretty simple: you can walk in them without wobbling, and they ground a frilly dress like a full stop. Conceptually, however, things are a lot more complicated. But isn’t everything these days?