Why This?

Cowboy Boots

The shoes of the future? The past? The always?

I RECENTLY TRAVELED TO New York City, where most of my family lives — my first trip home since BCE (Before the Covid Era). Despite the balmy weather, I noticed cowboy boots gracing the feet of fashion girls left and right. In distinctly coastal, Instagram-ready getups, they paired their cowboy boots with tiny ’90s-inspired shoulder bags, bike shorts, and oversized vintage tees. Then there were the ribbed tanks and light-wash cutoffs — though not of the Daisy Duke varietals. These were looser, longer, almost knee-skimming. It was a subversion of the country sex symbol’s uniform, turning it into something baggy and sportier, made for moving deftly through the city. My curiosity was piqued.

Cowboy boots are unapologetically sexy but still modest, and symbolically (and literally) protective.

I was familiar with the footwear, but in a very different context. My adopted hometown of Nashville has become the bachelorette-party capital of the world, and it is not uncommon to see a tribe of tipsy celebrants teetering down Lower Broadway, each donning a pair of their own newly purchased cowboy boots, talismans of their weekend to remember. And this particular type is quite unlike my legit musician friends here in “Music City,” whose worn-in boots are a component of their daily look, both onstage and off. But these NYC girls weren’t wearing their shoes as a token of tourism, nor as signifiers of any rock and roll leanings. So how then, did this country symbol become a city staple? In a city, I might add, so far from its dusty-road origins?

I did a little digging, and discovered Western wear has been experiencing a renaissance. Stars like Dua Lipa and Kendall Jenner have been pairing their iconic cowboy boots with high-waisted bottoms and bikinis, claiming 2021 as “cowgirl summer.” I spoke to Mel Ottenberg, creative director for Interview magazine and Rihanna’s long-time stylist, who credits the #FreeBritney moment of late as a factor powering the aughts reboot (pun intended). He was in full support of the somewhat unexpected pairing — the nude thong classic bikini with the nude-toned cowboy boot mash-up — deeming it a real “Kardashian flex.”

Here, the boot takes the place of a Lucite heel, balancing the overwhelming sexiness with something still sexy but tough. According to Ottenberg (and TikTok and, evidently, Bennifer), the aughts are back: “the idea of a blog, a trucker hat, Beatrice Inn, Americana, low-slung jeans — everyone is desperate to feel different right now, and that’s where the kids are looking.”

Cowboy boots have woven in and out of mainstream fashion for decades, in part due to being staple footwear for musicians, from Patsy Cline and Hank Williams to Neil Young and Tom Petty. Holly George-Warren, music journalist and author of over 16 books, including “How the West Was Worn,” posits that the boots will always cycle in and out of mainstream fashion, but never really go out of style. She points out that while various other elements of American Western style may hold similarities to comparable items from other countries — take for example, the cowboy hat’s rough similarity to Australia’s Akubra, or the contours of a Panama hat — there really isn’t any shoe in the world as particular as the American cowboy boot.

Part of that specificity comes from the highly functional nature of these boots. The pointed toe was designed for getting in and out of stirrups easily; the heels are a crucial element for keeping the stirrup seated in place. The shank is stronger than on typical footwear, allowing for hours of possible standing up and down in the stirrups. The length of the shaft is high enough to protect cowboys from snakes, bugs, and brambles. Even the embroidery was initially added in order to fortify the leather, making it less likely to crumple and chafe. Finally, the width of the shaft itself — which creates that signature gape at the calf — is crucial for allowing the rider to slide out of the boot easily; if thrown from the horse, the boot stays seated in the saddle, letting the rider slip out and avoid being pulled for miles. They’re easy-ejection shoes, so you can’t get dragged.

You can’t tiptoe in a cowboy boot.

The characteristics of the cowboy persona perpetuated by the Hollywood Western — strength, tenacity, independence — are all tacitly conveyed by the wearer. The heels of cowboy boots were even designed to effectively lean back into the ground and resist a stubborn mule or pulling horse — this is the root of the term “digging your heels in,” which also contributes to the image of the rogue, rebellious cowboy (and boot wearer). Tough and masculine, they came to signify not just physical strength but fortitude of character, insouciance to the constraints of the status quo, fearlessness, and spectacle.

So, why are they back now?

There’s the geographical: cut off from flying during COVID-19, Americans roamed west. National parks experienced an unprecedented uptick in visitors during 2020–21. Californians have relocated to Idaho and Montana in droves. Nostalgia for a ranch aesthetic and yearning for footwear to complete the lifestyle stand to follow.

There’s the social: folks are waxed and vaxxed and ready for love. Cowboy boots are unapologetically sexy but still modest, and symbolically (and literally) protective. They’re leather armor. In them you’re hot, and less vulnerable to snakes — but still incredibly cool.

Let me be clear: I am not a cowgirl. I live in Nashville; however, I am not a country singer, nor a music executive, nor am I Nicole Kidman’s neighbor who owns a horse farm. For me, “stable” is an aspirational mental state, not something I’m interested in mucking.

But I myself took the plunge and wore cowboy boots for a week. At first the prospect felt vaguely akin to walking into a Times Square souvenir shop and gluing Statue of Liberty magnets all over my body: so tactlessly touristy and impossible to integrate into my style, which I like to think of as chic.

I thought I knew how it would go, that I would have to begin every encounter with “I’m doing this for a story, not having a midlife crisis.” After perusing some from Tony Lama and Tecovas, I ultimately went with a gorgeous vintage black pair from Lucchese, which felt appropriately classic with not a trace of glitterbilly. These boots could have come straight off the feet of Thandie Newton on “Westworld.”

Immediately, the physical shift the boots afforded was undeniable. The moderate but heavy heels propelled me to lean back to counterbalance, inviting me to swing my hips with each step. Because of their weight, my gait was altered; there was a subtle kicking forward with each stride, which is both jaunty and also subtly aggressive, like pushing the air out of the way as I walk. Also, they are impossible to move in quietly. You can’t tiptoe in a cowboy boot.

Not shockingly, I felt most confident wearing my boots with pants (and not a flesh-tone bikini, bless you, Kendall). I felt most costumed when pairing my boots with dresses. Laura Ingalls Wilder chic is decidedly not for me, and the boots cut off my calf with a mildly stubby effect when worn with shorter skirts (bless you, dancer calves).

I’m less interested in performing my sexuality these days, but I do enjoy inhabiting clothing that alters my experience of walking through the world. I appreciate the way the boots make me feel, and am surprised that I feel that way — an unexpectedness I enjoy in and of itself. Wearing cowboy boots makes me feel sexy, not really because of how I think they look, but rather, because it doesn’t feel possible to wear them without summoning confidence and inner swagger.

I may not ever be a cowgirl, but I may borrow her shoes from time to time.

Ivy's Guide to Nashville

Our “Why This” columnist, Ivy Elrod, shares where to eat, hang, and find your own cowboy boots in her hometown.

  • Oz Arts

    Oz is the kind of contemporary art space that dreams are made of. Well, my dreams at least. Housed in a former cigar factory, Oz presents progressive dance, theater, music, and fine art from creators both domestic and international. I caught performance artist Taylor Mac's “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” at Oz where, at one point, the entire audience was blindfolded and forced to feed each other crudités.

  • Robert's Western World

    This is the best honky tonk in Nashville, don't let Kid Rock tell you otherwise. Robert's has the DNA of the original Lower Broadway where legit session musicians play nightly, alongside folks who have shown up to Nashville with a few songs and a dream. You used to be able to buy a pair of cowboy boots right off the wall.

  • Cumberland River Pedestrian Bridge

    During quarantine, I discovered that I like hiking, and furthermore that hiking is just walking outside. Who even knew? My friends who were already aware of these facts brought me here and it is a dream. This bridge connects 22 miles of Shelby Bottoms greenway, which contains 1,150 acres of lush parks, wetlands, and overfed ducks (mainly due to my overzealous children).

  • Lou

    Lou is a sexy restaurant located in an old house in East Nashville with a really lovely outdoor patio. The inside feels romantic and vaguely Parisian — I believe the owners were living in Paris before coming to Nashville. They do a great brunch and serve breakfast wine, which I believe is a very glamorous way to green-light drinking last night's wine in the morning.

  • Cafe Roze

    Roze is an all-day cafe that just feels like home, only with better food that you don’t have to cook. It never disappoints, from après ballet class hot chocolates and fries with my daughter, to the lentil-and-veggie Roze Bowl working lunch, to a girls’ dinner grass-fed burger (add an egg, live in abundance).

  • Atelier Savas

    After training at Central Saint Martins in London and cutting her teeth at Billy Reid, Savannah Yarborough started her bespoke leather atelier in 2015 around the same time as I opened my design showroom in Nashville. Yarborough has been known for her bespoke leather jackets, handmade here in Nash; this year she launched a line of really gorgeous leather boots that are now on my wishlist.

  • Madai Korean & Sushi Restaurant

    Madai is a family-run Asian restaurant that I am so relieved survived Covid. If you're lucky, the chef might bring an off-the-menu banchan to your table herself. I don't usually hang out in this part of town, but I would crawl there in ski pants in the sweltering Tennessee sun for the stone pot bibimbap.

  • Folk

    Both of Phil Krajeck's restaurants, Folk and Rolf & Daughters, are my go-to date night spots. I live in East Nashville where Folk is located, and I always host dinners there. Their decor — a simple light installation of paper orb lanterns — is so spot on and feels so festive and chic. The clam pizza sounds like a no but is actually a screaming yes.

  • Parnassus Books

    Parnassus is Candyland for word nerds like me — an independent bookstore founded by a writer, Ann Patchett. David Sedaris does readings here on all his book tours. They also have a book bus named Pegasus — Peggy for short — which is like a food truck except it's a bookstore on wheels.

  • Grimey's Music

    Grimey's is a Nashville institution. It has live performances for record releases and book signings. But at its heart it's a classic record store.

  • High Class Hillbilly

    HCH is the kind of spot a TV writer might create when writing about Nashville — a vintage boutique owned by a country singer-songwriter, Nikki Lane, whose style has been described as “as unapologetic as Johnny Cash's middle finger.” There are solid finds here, including a consistent cowboy boot offering.

  • Peg Leg Porker

    Serious barbeque, which, for some, is a requisite for any visit below the Mason-Dixon. Located in the Gulch, one of Nashville's few (thankfully multiplying) walkable neighborhoods, its name is derived from the owner and chef's self-effacing moniker — he lost his leg to childhood cancer. But it makes me think of the joke about eating so much you "fill your hollow leg."

  • Oz Arts

    Oz is the kind of contemporary art space that dreams are made of. Well, my dreams at least. Housed in a former cigar factory, Oz presents progressive dance, theater, music, and fine art from creators both domestic and international. I caught performance artist Taylor Mac's “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” at Oz where, at one point, the entire audience was blindfolded and forced to feed each other crudités.

  • Madai Korean & Sushi Restaurant

    Madai is a family-run Asian restaurant that I am so relieved survived Covid. If you're lucky, the chef might bring an off-the-menu banchan to your table herself. I don't usually hang out in this part of town, but I would crawl there in ski pants in the sweltering Tennessee sun for the stone pot bibimbap.

  • Robert's Western World

    This is the best honky tonk in Nashville, don't let Kid Rock tell you otherwise. Robert's has the DNA of the original Lower Broadway where legit session musicians play nightly, alongside folks who have shown up to Nashville with a few songs and a dream. You used to be able to buy a pair of cowboy boots right off the wall.

  • Folk

    Both of Phil Krajeck's restaurants, Folk and Rolf & Daughters, are my go-to date night spots. I live in East Nashville where Folk is located, and I always host dinners there. Their decor — a simple light installation of paper orb lanterns — is so spot on and feels so festive and chic. The clam pizza sounds like a no but is actually a screaming yes.

  • Cumberland River Pedestrian Bridge

    During quarantine, I discovered that I like hiking, and furthermore that hiking is just walking outside. Who even knew? My friends who were already aware of these facts brought me here and it is a dream. This bridge connects 22 miles of Shelby Bottoms greenway, which contains 1,150 acres of lush parks, wetlands, and overfed ducks (mainly due to my overzealous children).

  • Parnassus Books

    Parnassus is Candyland for word nerds like me — an independent bookstore founded by a writer, Ann Patchett. David Sedaris does readings here on all his book tours. They also have a book bus named Pegasus — Peggy for short — which is like a food truck except it's a bookstore on wheels.

  • Lou

    Lou is a sexy restaurant located in an old house in East Nashville with a really lovely outdoor patio. The inside feels romantic and vaguely Parisian — I believe the owners were living in Paris before coming to Nashville. They do a great brunch and serve breakfast wine, which I believe is a very glamorous way to green-light drinking last night's wine in the morning.

  • Grimey's Music

    Grimey's is a Nashville institution. It has live performances for record releases and book signings. But at its heart it's a classic record store.

  • Cafe Roze

    Roze is an all-day cafe that just feels like home, only with better food that you don’t have to cook. It never disappoints, from après ballet class hot chocolates and fries with my daughter, to the lentil-and-veggie Roze Bowl working lunch, to a girls’ dinner grass-fed burger (add an egg, live in abundance).

  • High Class Hillbilly

    HCH is the kind of spot a TV writer might create when writing about Nashville — a vintage boutique owned by a country singer-songwriter, Nikki Lane, whose style has been described as “as unapologetic as Johnny Cash's middle finger.” There are solid finds here, including a consistent cowboy boot offering.

  • Atelier Savas

    After training at Central Saint Martins in London and cutting her teeth at Billy Reid, Savannah Yarborough started her bespoke leather atelier in 2015 around the same time as I opened my design showroom in Nashville. Yarborough has been known for her bespoke leather jackets, handmade here in Nash; this year she launched a line of really gorgeous leather boots that are now on my wishlist.

  • Peg Leg Porker

    Serious barbeque, which, for some, is a requisite for any visit below the Mason-Dixon. Located in the Gulch, one of Nashville's few (thankfully multiplying) walkable neighborhoods, its name is derived from the owner and chef's self-effacing moniker — he lost his leg to childhood cancer. But it makes me think of the joke about eating so much you "fill your hollow leg."

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Our Contributors

Ivy Elrod Writer

Ivy Elrod is a multidisciplinary creative living in Nashville, Tennessee. Her writing has most recently been published in the new Playgirl Magazine. She is also an actress and a playwright, and was once the youngest Rockette at Radio City. She is now principal designer and founder of Wilder, an experiential showroom and contemporary design firm.

Gigi Rose Gray Illustrator

Gigi Rose Gray is an illustrator and fine artist born and raised in New York City, now living in Los Angeles. She received a BFA in illustration at Parsons The New School for Design.

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