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    

Fine 19thc Chinese Qing Bronze Carved Dragon Figural Silk Robe Belt Hook BuckleSterling Silver Belt Buckle With Gold NuggetOld Pawn Vintage Navajo 1970's Jet Black Onyx Snake Sterling Oval Belt Buckle Antique Heart Shaped Cut Steel Belt Buckle Unmarked1989 Belt Buckle Western Maryland Train Engine H-9 Steam EngineHigh End Vintage Estate Art Deco All Rhinestone Belt Buckle Jewelry Lot AVfw Belt BuckleBsa Jamboree Belt BuckleUtah The Security Corporation Belt Buckle State Of Texas Belt BuckleSokota Hybrids Limited Edition Belt Buckle #420/1000 Lot CRound Celtic Cross Knot Belt Buckle Mens Irish Southwestern Gothic Silver MetalLuxury Men Leather Waistband Casual Belt Waist Strap Alloy Pin Buckle Belt BlueConfederate Cs Oval "rope Border" Belt Plate Buckle Dug Mill Springs Ky - ScarceTiffany & Co 14k Yellow Gold 1" Belt Buckle VintageAntique Qing Chinese Sterling Repousse Silver Hair Ornament Belt BuckleNintendo Switch + Legend Of Zelda Breath Of The Wild + Wallet +belt Buckle Porsche Sterling Silver Belt Buckle Limited Edition #930Estate Find...vintage Sterling Bear Overlay Belt Buckle Lawrence Saufkie HopiOld Navajo Apache Dancer Turquoise Silver Belt Buckle By Ww2 Navajo Code TalkerVogt Sterling Silver 14k Gf Belt Buckle W/ Chet Vogt Hand Tooled Belt 38Kiss Belt Buckle Pacifica 1978 *w0w* Excellent Condition Genuine State Of New York Sny Civil War Era Belt Buckle Plate Bullet Holes RareAntique Sterling Silver Belt Buckle With 1903 S Five Dollar Gold Half EagleConfederate Cash & Cs Serifs Plate Buckle & Belt, Marked Slave ! Rare Antique Handmade Chinese Gold, Silver, & Diamonds Belt & Buckle NrGucci Men's Black Leather & Silver Logo Buckle Belt Size 36Le Vian 3/4ctw White & Chocolate Diamond 14k Solid Yellow Gold Buckle Belt RingFendi--"double F" Logo Belt--white & Silver Buckle--silve & Gray Belt--msrp $450Hermes Belt 32mm/95 Reversible Kit Black/ "h" Buckle.Barry Kieselstein 1992 Sterling Silver 3 Piece Belt Buckle Set 'moon & Stars'Original Us Civil War Belt BuckleNew Men's Versace Medusa Buckle Leather Belt Size 44 / 110 CmVery Rare Usmc China Marine Belt Buckle Tientsin China 1946 .Vintage James Avery Bronze Bison Buffalo Belt BuckleOld Pawn Vintage Zuni Snake Belt Buckle Nice Az Turquoise & Sterling By Effie C.Sandcast Silver & Turquoise Concho Belt -8 Conchos And Buckle-no ReserveVintage Harley Davidson Motorcycle Chain Belt & Buckle - Heavy Duty, Unique Wow!Sterling Silver Western Belt Buckle Hand Made By GistVintage Navajo Belt Buckle, Coin Silver, 4 Sky Blue Turquoise Stones 111.2 Grams1962 "200 Novice Champion" Sterling/10k Gold Rodeo Belt BuckleNorth American Arms Naa Belt Buckle Holster Vintage Men's Versace Palazzo Belt With Gold Medusa Buckle BeltOld Pawn Navajo Handmade Stamped Sterling Silver Turquoise Belt Buckle J LxKlu Klux Klan Belt Buckle Imperial Wizard KkkBrown Mens Hermes Belt W/gold H Buckle 90cm 40Nwt Size 40 Authentic Gucci Men's Web Belt With Interlocking G Metal Buckle NewAllison Snowhawk Lee Navajo Sterling Silver Ranger Buckle Set Black Cachon Belt****ferragamo Men's Belt**** Black W/ Black Gloss Buckle 105cmGold Buckle On Brown Monogram Louis Vuitton Belt - Size 40 Inches - 100 CmWwi Mecklenburg -german Army - Belt & Buckle 100% Original. Not Reproduction!Gucci Brown Leather Wooden Buckle Belt Size 38Judith Leiber Burgun Snakeskin W/gold Buckle Adjustable Fashion Belt M-l 29"-38"Michael Jackson Stage Worn Tour Used Military Bronze Star Not Signed Belt BuckleOriginal Wwii German Belt And BuckleAntique New Mexico Military Institute Brass Belt Buckle College Seal CambridgeBrushed Buckle Ferragamo Italy Leather Belt~ Men's Reversible Brown BlackAuthentic 42mm Hermes Silver Shiny Belt Buckle **no Strap ***Chanel Black Pebbled Leather Gold Cc Buckle Belt Size 80/321977 Pacifica Aucoin Kiss Metal Belt Buckle Peter Criss