Belt buckles—for men, at least—are like modern-day versions of crowns. Whether they’re attached to concho, cowboy, or wrestling-title belts, the bigger and more loaded down the buckles are with heavy metal and stones, the more accomplished and important the men wearing them, right?

Of course, buckles began as strictly utilitarian devices, clasps designed to fasten things together, like the opposite ends of belts and straps. They were used for harnesses and saddles, as well as on boots, shoes, and clothes.

But it wasn't long before they became elaborately decorated status symbols. The semi-nomadic Chinese people known as Xiongnu around the 3rd or 2nd century B.C. wore belted tunics with fancy buckles, sometimes in the shapes of powerful animals like oxen. Ancient Greek and Roman metalsmiths forged beautiful and imposing belt buckles for Teutonic warriors.

Germanic invaders attempting to take over the Roman Empire had intricate belt buckles picturing animals engaged in fights, echoing Scythian-Sarmatian motifs. A heavy filigreed rectangular buckle, unearthed from the tomb of Childeric I, the king of the Franks, who died around A.D. 481, is considered a prime example of this kind of buckle.

It was around this time that Celtic styles of belt buckles emerged, including the Celtic cross, Celtic knot, Celtic shield, the Tree of Life, and Nidhogg the dragon. These motifs are still tremendously popular today.

In the 7th century, Anglo-Saxons wore belts to hang their knifes and pouches from—the metal of the buckle, usually designed in the "shield-on-tongue" style, telegraphed the wealth of the wearer. A particularly magnificent gold example has been recovered from the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Its curvilinear design shows snakes intertwined with four-legged animals. Clearly forged by a master artisan, it features a complex system of fasteners.

The belt buckle as ornamentation reached its peak in the Middle Ages, when the knights of the late 14th century wore the most magnificent belts ever made. After that, buckles onc...

Even though goldsmiths had invented buttons in the 1600s, British sailors used eyelets and string to keep their clothes in place. But these proved useless to military and merchant seaman, who often got soaked during intense ocean storms. Belts and buckles were then put to good use to keep sopping wet clothes attached to the body of a storm-battered sailor. Around the same time, the Puritans who fled to America employed cheap belt buckles—they felt buttons were sinful.

In 1888, and Englishman named Charles Ashbee founded the Guild of Handicraft to preserve the craftsmanship of jewelry and metalwork. Ashbee and others were reacting to the poorly made objects coming out of the Industrial Revolution. This Art Nouveau movement produced delicate, decorative belt buckles that are some of the most coveted today by collectors.

Across the ocean in America, many Southwest Native American tribes, particularly the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni, began making silver jewelry and belt buckles, often adorned with turquoise, in response to the demand for souvenirs from Victorian Era tourists visiting the West via the railroad.

It wasn't really until the 1920s and the Art Deco period, though, when the waists of pants were lowered to a more natural waistline, that belts became popular for American men and women outside the military. The most common types of belt buckles include frame-style, plate-style, and box-frame buckles.

The fantasy of cowboys in the 19th-century Wild West facing off with their big belt buckles gleaming in the sun is a pure 20th century invention, made up by Hollywood. Real cowboys kept their britches up with suspenders or plain military friction belt buckles. But early Hollywood costume designers wanted to add a little flair and swagger to their Western heroes.

Those designers knew what they were doing. The "Western belt buckle" exploded as the biggest American buckle style of the 20th century, worn by cowboys in rodeos, country-western singers, couples two-stepping at clubs, and even an U.S. president or two.

Western belt buckles, also known as Texas, cowboy, or cowgirl belt buckles, come in a wide variety of styles. Some of them feature American flags and patriotic symbols such as the bald eagle. Longhorn cattle and cowboys riding bucking broncos or bulls are other common motifs. Early examples were heavy, made of silver-plated iron, but these days, new metal alloys allow for cowboy buckles to look large and imposing even though they are deceptively light.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

The Black Tie Guide

The Black Tie Guide

Peter Marshall became an authority on formalwear out of necessity — he needed a tux to wear on the maiden transat… [read review or visit site]

Anna Checcoli's homage to the beauty and art of hand fans ('ventagli,' in Italian). Use the left-hand nav to browse… [read review or visit site]

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

The Fashion Columbia Study Collection (FCSC) is the digital home of the Columbia College Chicago’s fashion archiv… [read review or visit site]

Dr. David Fleishman's comprehensive spectacles site (over 3500 images), in collaboration with museums around the wo… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Kate Spade Brown Leather Gold Stud Belt Buckle Strao Satchel Shoulder BagOld Rare Vintage Antique Civil War Relic Original U.s. Baby Belt Buckle RichmondA.p.c Paris Made In France Tobacco Brown Suede Leather Belt 90 36 Silver BuckleConfederate "baby" / "cavalry" Gutterback Frame Belt Buckle Plate Dug TnWestern-early California Sterling Belt Buckle Set / Keyston Bros - San FranciscoOriginal Ww2 German Luftwaffe Belt BuckleOrig Civil War Era Drummers Cross Belt Plate / Buckle To Hold Drum Sticks - ExcWw2 German Combat Field Belt For Em BuckleTom Ford - Gold T Buckle Leather Belt (hermes, Gucci, Cucinelli, Goyard)Civil War Union Officers M1851 Leather Belt, Eagle Buckle, 1850 Scabbard,holsterLevian 2.16ct Chocolate & Vanilla Diamond 14k Vanilla Gold Belt Buckle RingBeautiful Indian War Era Model 1874 " Us " Brass Sabre Belt Buckle With KeeperOld Pawn Navajo Hallmarked Sterling Silver Turquoise Coral Claw Belt Buckle G MxCivil War Officers Belt Buckle PlateDug Officers 1851 Sword Belt Plate Buckle Civil War New Hope GaIndian War Cavalry Belt 1851 Buckle Saber Straps Us Army Leather Sword RigSoul Ages Soulages Sterling 10k Gold Western Ranger Belt Buckle Style Watch BandVintage Native American Inlay Turquoise Coral Sterling Silver Belt Buckle 49 GrRrl Ralph Lauren Iron Worker Belt Indian Chief Polo Leather Utility Buckle 36Original Ww2 Gott Mit Uns German Army Belt BuckleRare -hard To Find Indian Wars Belt Buckle " Usip " -united States Indian PoliceNwt Gucci Belt Black Leather Guccissima Belt With Interlocking Gold G BuckleSterling Silver Belt Buckle John Mccabe.Nwt Gucci Belt Black Leather Guccissima Belt With Interlocking G BuckleSalvatore Ferragamo 36 Dark Brown Leather Gold Oversized Buckle Belt $495 Iwm043Old Pawn Vintage Signed Navajo Rare High Grade Turquoise Sterling Belt Buckle Gott Mit Uns Origonal Ww1 Imperial German Milatary Belt & BuckleGenuine Navajo Turquoise, Coral, And Sterling Silver Belt Buckle.Blue Ribbon Ervin Hoskie Navajo Turquoise Coral Inlay Bolo Belt Buckle Set Hf023New Men's Authentic 100% Hermes Gold Plate H Buckle Black Leather BeltCivil War Cs Spur Buckle Belt PlateVintage Sterling Silver Santa Fe Fiesta Belt Buckle Signed Green K.c.Lauren Ralph Lauren Brown Pebbled Leather Side Belt Buckle Shoulder BagNew Salvatore Ferragamo Large 38"black Leather Belt W Ruthenium BuckleGreat Indian/spanish-american War Era Massachusetts Belt BuckleNew Hermes Men's Reversible 38mm Belt Blue/brown Leather 2h Gold/sliver BuckleCivil War Alabama Sword Belt Plate BuckleOld 1970s Navajo Sterling Silver Turquoise Coral Inlay Peyote Bird Belt Buckle Original Civil War U.s. Puppy Paw Belt BuckleCartier Santos Belt Silver Buckle Leather Authentic New Box DustbagNew 32mm Hermes Reversible Belt Kit Blue Orange/blue Silver Buckle Size 90cmVintage Civil War Us Belt BuckleAut-herme Belt Reversible Brown/black (with H Buckle 7.2cm) 110cm-44incHarley Davidson American Legend Belt Buckle W/ Removable Zippo Eagle LighterVintage Plata De Jalisco Mex Vhlc Sterling Silver 10k Buckle Brown Leather BeltAtc Belt Buckle Hondaline Honda 250r 350x 200x Elsinore Vintage Mx Atv AhrmaNorth American Arms Belt Buckle Holster Skeleton Design 22 Lr 1 1/8" Or 1 5/8"Aut-herme Belt Brown/black Reversible (with H Buckle 7.2cm) 105cm-42inc1885 925 Sterling Silver Morgan Usa American Eagle $1 Dollar Coin On Belt BuckleHand Made Silver Mounted Belt Buckle & Keeper Mkr/mkd Not SpursGenuine Tiffany & Co. Sterling Silver Belt Buckle W/box Nos Estate Item Nr1910 Birmingham Art Nouveau Solid Silver & Enamel Belt Buckle Civil War Silver Plated Eagle Two Piece Belt Buckle Belt PlateVintage Famous Taxco Mexico Sterling Antonio Pineda Retro Belt BuckleCartier Santos Belt Silver Buckle Leather Belt New In Box AuthenticBorn Shoes Jem Black Leather Woven Buckle Belt Side Zip Booties 9.5mNavajo Silver And Gold Belt Buckle Sterling Rodeo Trophy Signed Wes Craig *198Big Vtg. Sterling Silver Hand Engraved Belt Buckle-reno-western Rodeo CowboyWwi British Coldstream Guards Belt & Buckle Set-originalVia Spiga Black Suede Leather Belt Buckle Strap Pull On Knee High Boots 8.5m