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    

Antique 1909 Solid Silver Adie & Lovekin Ornate Two Piece Belt Buckle - V19 S51Tiffany & Co. 14k Yellow Gold Belt Buckle For 1.1" Wide Belts 19.3 Grams NrHunter Blue Rubber Silver Belt Buckle Side Rain Boots Shoes 11Vintage Western Ranger Belt Buckle Set Sterling Silver 10k Gold Rubies Vintage Hermes Goldtone H Buckle Tan Brown Black Leather Belt Large 32" 34"Exceptionally Rare Lalique Cat Crystal Buckle Belt. Never Worn. Dramatic Red.Civil War Era Belt Buckle Beltbuckle Brass E Pluribus Unum Eagle 3" InchesCeline Siena Aw14 Toffee Brown Os Mink Fur Buckle Waist Belt New $2500 Ism183Effie C. Zuni Turquoise Coral Sterling Silver Snake Belt Buckle 101.2gBeautiful Genuine Gucci;gold Plated "gg" Buckle;black Patent Leather Belt:70-28Vtg Southwestern Turquoise Petite Point 925 Sterling Silver Belt Buckle SetAntique Bohlin - Hollywood - Sterling Silver Belt Buckle Parts !!!Hermes Reversible Belt With Chrome "h" Buckle Auth Gucci Wide Black Patent Leather Belt With Brass Horsebit Buckle Size SmallOld Pawn Sand Cast Sterling Silver 925 American Indian Turquoise Belt Buckle NrCivil War Csa Belt,north Carolina Buckle,cap Pouch,enfield Bayonet Group #3-usedMichael Kors 3459 New Womens White Leather Solid Buckle Casual Belt M BhfoClassic Gibson Nez 1947 - 2007 Navajo Sterling Silver & Coral Belt Buckle 1980'sAuth H Hermès 32 Mm Gold Polished Buckle For 32 Mm Herme BeltNavajo Sterling Silver & Turquoise Belt Buckle Hallmarked SbVtg Pawn Thick Sterling Silver Turquoise Nugget Navajo Concho Belt Buckle SignedVintage Navajo Black Suede Belt W 3pc Silver Belt Buckle SetCivil War Csa Belt,buckle,cap Pouch,enfield Bayonet Group #2-old CampaignersSterling Silver - Navajo Les Baker Turquoise Belt Buckle (3 Piece) 53.6g - SetHermes Constance Belt Buckle Golden Suitable For 42 Mm Strap *only Buckle*Gucci Silver Hardware Interlocking G Buckle BeltUs General Officer's Type Black Leather Belt And Buckle - El Paso SaddleryVintage Naa North American Arms .22 Magnum Revolver Pistol Belt Buckle Victorian .925 Hm Sterling Silver Nurses Belt Buckle Clip Birmingham 1898 Fine Navajo Indian Justin Morris Sterling Silver Turquoise Red Coral Belt BucklePolo Ralph Lauren 2325 New Mens Black Leather Solid Buckle Dress Belt 36 BhfoOld Pawn Vintage Navajo Handmade Solid Sterling Belt BuckleSuperb Large Art Nouveau Circa 1905 Gilt Metal Enamel Inlay Belt BuckleVtg 40s 50s Mccabe Sterling Silver & 10k Gold Western Ranger Belt Buckle SetLot 11 - Vintage Navajo Silver Belt Buckle With TurquoiseVintage White Black Diamond Heart Belt Buckle Sterling Silver 925 Ring 7 (6.7g)1936 Japanese Imperial Navy Belt Buckle Vtg Pre Wwii Ww2 Medal Warship Ship BoatPink Green Hunting Camo Rhinestone Cowgirl Studded Bling Buckle Leather Belt LFine Navajo Indian Justin Morris Sterling Silver 12k Gold Fill Belt BuckleClint Orms Black Lizard Sterling Silver Tone Engraved Buckle Belt Sz 29Aut Reversible Hermes Leather Belt H Silver Buckle Black Size: 95Vogt Vintage Sterling & Large Wwesyern Belt Buckle,c.1960,horse Head,77g/2.5oztSterling Silver Tiffany Belt BuckleAuth H Hermès 32 Mm Silver Brushed Buckle For 32 Mm Herme BeltFleming Sterling Silver Hand Engraved Cowboy Belt Buckle For Silver Dollar Coin Civil War Csa Belt,buckle,cap Pouch,enfield Bayonet Group-old CampaignersNorth American Arms Belt Buckle HolsterAntique 3 Pc Sterling Silver & 18k Gold Ranger Belt Buckle Set - CowboyLot 10 - Vintage Jennie Blackgoat Navajo Silver Belt Buckle W Turquoise & CoralChanel Leather Black Brass Logo Buckle BeltCivil War Cavalry Belt With Sword Hangers And BuckleOriginal German Wwi Hate Belt War Souvenir W/gott Mit Uns Buckle Trench Art Queen The Show Must Go On.very Rare 1992 Official Belt Buckle, Near MintAuthentic Versace Belt With Oval Medusa Buckle - Black/gold E/5140Lot 4 - Vintage Zuni 3pc Flush Inlay Ranger Belt Buckle SetWwi German Prussian Gott Mit Uns Belt W/ Buckle Military War Relic Leather Nr!!Hermes Gold&silver Plate 2h Buckle Brown/black Reversible Men's Leather BeltVintage Garcia Saddlery Salinas Engraved Sterling Silver Western Belt Buckle QzChrome Hearts Belt Buckle100% Authentic Gucci Belt White Color With Chrome Buckle Size 48/120