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”)

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]

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]

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    

Rare! New York State Militia, Excelsior Eagle & Shield Buckle + Leather Belt, NrOriginal Civil War Confederate Atlanta Style Arsenal Belt Buckle Salvatore Ferragamo Black Radica 36 Leather Double Gancini Buckle Belt New $360Vintage American Indian Navajo Sterling Silver Turquoise Belt Buckle W. BenallyOld Pawn Vintage Zuni Navajo 1950's Elk Antler & Turquoise Sterling Belt Buckle Edward H Bohlin Gold On Sterling Silver Buckle Keeper Tip Fine Made Tooled BeltMens Salvatore Ferragamo Black Belt Silver BuckleSalvatore Ferragamo Parigi Double-gancini Black 36 Leather Buckle Belt New $380 Mcm Claus Cognac Black 44" Leather Monogram M Buckle Reversible Belt $295 Belt Buckle Silver (color?) Nevada Turquoise Signed Eb 4"Ralph Lauren Polo Sterling Silver Engine Turned Belt Buckle Made In U.s.a#1 Menswear John Lobb Black Pebblegrain Leather Antique Brass Buckle Belt 95 NrSterling Silver 14k & Ruby Holland's San Angelo Ranger Belt Buckle Set #104Vtg Zuni Handmade 925 Sterling Silver Turquoise Fish Scale Inlay Belt Buckle | JRare Civil War Era U S Naval Belt And Two Piece BuckleHermes Men's Leather Belt Limitied Slim H Buckle Reversible Black/olive Size 90 Mens Gucci Gg Belt Black - Interlocking G Buckle - Size 85cm / 34inOriginal Ww2 German Belt Buckle With Original Leather Strap Very Good ConditionCivil War Mississippi Sword Belt Plate BuckleVintage Hammered Heavy Sterling Silver Belt Buckle Men's/unisex (40grams Scrap)A+ Old Indian Navajo Sterling Silver Jerry Werito Ranger Concho Belt Buckle SetVintage James Reid Santa Fe Sterling Silver Belt Buckle Set 77 GramsAuthentic Prada Black Leather Skinny Belt Golden Buckle Size 34 Fits 32" WaistStunning Art Deco Paste Dress Belt BuckleSterling Silver - 1922 Us Peace Dollar Western Horseshoe 74.7g - Belt BuckleAuthentic Civil War Belt Buckle UnionCivil War Csa Pewter Belt Buckle. Confederate PlateCivil War 6th Infantry North Carolina State Belt Buckle PlateAuthentic White Gucci Belt W/ Gold Buckle Monogram Fits 30-34 Good ConditionA+ Old Indian Navajo Sterling Silver Signed Concho Belt And BuckleVintage Navajo Sterling Silver Belt Buckle W/buffalo, Bison By Tom Bahe-57 GramsSalvatore Ferragamo Silver And Black Men's Belt BuckleMattel Motu 1982 S-1 He-man W/ Accessories, Orig Brass 1984 He-man Belt Buckle Nwt Authentic Gucci Belt Gold Matt Buckle Gg Burguny Size Fits 105/42James Reid Ltd Sante Fe Sterling Silver 4 Piece Belt Buckle Set BlanketWwii German Sa Belt Buckle Germany Eagle W/ WreathSuperb Indian Old Pawn Red Coral Zuni Sterling Silver Belt Buckle Jobeth MayesVery Rare Civil War Era Two Piece Brass " Police " Buckle On Its Orig Belt -excVintage Navajo Sterling Faux Bear Claw Turquoise And Coral Belt Buckle Signed T Ww1 Imperial German Prussian Officer's Field Belt Strap & Buckle. Original. Wwi Imperial German Army Belt & Buckle Set-originalVintage Sterling Silver And Turquoise Cluster Belt Buckle Bids Start@.99/no ResSalvatore Ferragamo Gancio Reversible Black Brown 44.5" Leather Buckle Belt $340Vintage Turquoise Coral Navajo Bull Cow Western Belt Buckle Sterling SilverHermes Constance Belt Buckle Golden Shiny Suitable For 42 Mm Strap *only BuckleA+ Old Southwestern Navajo Sterling Silver Concho Belt & BuckleOriginal Ww2 German Red Cross Belt BuckleRare Ww1 Soldier's Memory Belt With Captured And Unit Buttons, Buckle And CoinsOriginal Ww2 German Reich Luftwaffe Belt Buckle = Wehrmacht ArmyOld Native American Indian Navajo Silver Turquoise Belt Concha Buckle Repousse San Carlos Crumrine Jewelers 22k Gold On Sterling Silver Western Belt Buckle 74gVtg Jw Toadlena Ihmss Navajo Faux Bear Claw Turquoise Coral Belt Buckle SignedCivil War Virginia 2 Piece Belt Buckle PlateSterling Silver - Boyd 1889 Us Morgan Dollar Coin Western 83g - Belt BuckleAntique Vintage Harley Davidson Motorcycle Knucklehead Panhead Belt BuckleGreat Vintage Leather Colt Holster On Leather Belt With Bronco BuckleVintage Navajo Handmade Sand Cast 925 Sterling Silver Turquoise Belt Buckle J AoGargoyles~large Kerr Sterling Silver Belt Buckle Jewelry Antique Nouveau Civil War Era Belt Buckle Westchester Chasseurs 17th New York InfantrySterling Silver - Boyd 1880 Us Morgan Dollar Coin Western 101g - Belt Buckle