Before the 1920s, cowboys didn’t actually wear belt buckles. Many cowboys didn’t even wear belts and today, some still don’t. Most cowboys by the late 1800s actually wore suspenders. Suspenders did the simple job of keeping the pants up just fine, and were very functional for the work of a ranch lifestyle – riding, roping, saddling, tending to and caring for animals, building, and any other tasks of ranch management. In fact, the entire attire of the cowboy in the 1800s was essentially functional, with many cowboys wearing second-hand clothing to work in, since at the time clothing was not mass-produced but custom and tailor-made.
During the Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, the military started to use the friction belt buckle, the type of buckle where you pull the belt behind and through the buckle to keep the belt in place. It doesn’t have a prong and a hole. Those buckles were mostly made of brass, and as the war waged, and buckles were mas produced in large quantities, they became more widespread and some cowboys started wearing them too.
It wasn’t however until the early 1900s, that trend, fashion and style began to figure into the cowboy’s dress. This was the time that Hollywood began to romanticize, on the screen, the clothing of the cowboy. A distinct cowboy image began to come clear, with Hollywood finding ways to enhance elements that seemed particularly unique. In these early films, cowboys were wearing regular belts and buckles but by the 1950s, cowboys on the big screen had begun to sport larger, shinier western belt buckles with Western-related scenes and imagery. These images had a major influence on the cowboy’s pride and fashion sense, and cowboys everywhere adapted, in part, to the images on the screen. Although these large belt buckles that were bulkier were not necessarily conducive to the kind of work cowboys did, many cowboys’ dress ethic shifted from merely practical to stylish.
Western belt buckles today, are not just for cowboys, but are popular amongst those who show an appreciation for western motifs and styles. Cowboy belt buckles are still in demand amongst real cowboys. But there are also cowboys that live functional and contemporary lifestyles, without those fashionable accoutrements – and they are still cowboys.