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]

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

Most watched eBay auctions    

Martin Milner's Adam-12 Sam Browne Buckle Duty Belt With Clamshell Holster MmpcMatt Hackett Belt Buckle Tip Sterling Silver 925 14k Gold Red Ruby Maida's Belt$1600 Current .925 Sterling And 14k Gold Buckle Set + Belt Comstock Heritage NrVintage Chimayo Indian Blanket Cinch Belt W/buckle Jacket '30's Talon ZipperNew 32mm HermGucci Men's Red & Navy Web Striped & Silver Buckle Belt Size 90/36Cartier Santos Belt Silver Buckle Leather Belt New In Box Authentic1930s John Mccabe Sterling Silver +10k Gold & Ruby Longhorn Western Belt BuckleHi-quality Michael Perry Navajo Sterling Silver & Bisbee Turquoise Belt Buckle Antique Civil War Us Belt Buckle, W.h. Smith Brooklyn, & Belt, Brass Oval UsOld Pawn Sandcast Navajo Belt Buckle Sterling Silver Turquoise Green & Blue NrGucci Belt Size 38-42 105/42 Gg Interlocking Buckle Pre Owned 114984-5250-105-42Wonderful Orig Civil War " Us " Buckle, Belt And Cap Box - Belt & Box MarkedVintage Zuni Ranger Belt Buckle Set With Inlay Turquoise Solid ConstructionSalvatore Ferragamo New Navy Leather Buckle Closure Dress Belt 34 BhfoVintage Sterling Silver 1883-o Morgan Dollar Coin Smith's Western Belt BuckleOld Pawn Navajo Stamped Sterling Applique Turquoise Coral Belt Buckle By "km" |gOrig Indian War Era "us" Marked Wide Hand Stitched Large Cartridge Belt & BuckleGucci Brown Monogram & White Leather Silver Buckle Belt Size 75/30Beautiful Large Intricate Victorian Antique Carved Acorns Nut Belt Buckle BroochVintage ~sterling Silver & 10k Gold~ Western Belt Buckle Ruby Set Mexican SignedQuite Rare Orig Civil War Small M 1839 " Us " Belt Buckle In Near Mint ConditionVintage Elsa Peretti 18k Gold Buckle Belt Tiffany & CoGucci Black Leather Belt 36-90 Anchor Logo Tattoo Buckle -authentic!Vintage Navajo Sterling Silver Turquoise Cluster Petite Belt Buckle Signed DcLot Women Vintage Belts 15 Pcs Leather Tooled Levis Belt Buckle Western Hippie Sterling Silver Turquoise Men's Belt Buckle--signed Fl BegayImperial German Pre-world War I Army Model 1892 Prussian Nco Belt Buckle. New 32mm H HermBowen Wide Single Edge Buckle Knife With 42" Black Belt 1 9/16" Wide ConcealedGucci Belt W/ Engraved Silver Plaque Buckle 95 Cm 34" Waist AuthenticHermes Orange/black Reversible Belt W/gold Buckle Us Sz 30-34 95cmShiny Gucci Black Guccissima Gold Gg Buckle Belt 100% Auth 95cm Fits 32-36 WaistNavajo Arts & Crafts Guild - Silver Belt Buckle Marked With Shop Marks Great! Auth HermVintage Sterling Silver Signed American Indian Badger Paw Bear Paw Belt BuckleSterling Silver Southwest 2.6 Ounce Horseshoe Horse Stallion Western Belt BuckleGirls Purple Gucci Belt Size Small With The Gold Double G's For The BuckleFerragamo Black Leather Gold Buckle Icon Belt SVintage Signed Sterling Silver & Stone Belt Buckle W/ Michael Kors Leather BeltSigned Navajo Tommy Moore Aaa Sleeping Beauty Turquoise 925 Silver Belt BuckleSmall Navajo Old Pawn Turquoise Sterling Silver Concho Belt BuckleVintage Mix Lot Antique Compact Patch Keychain Belt Buckle Bolo Scarf Tie! Jr183Renalde Sterling Denver, Colorado, 10k Western Longhorn Belt BuckleSalvatore Ferragamo New Blue Leather Buckle Closure Casual Belt 40 BhfoOld Pawn Vintage Navajo Sterling & Turquoise Eagle Belt BuckleVintage Zippo Cigarette Lighter Belt Buckle 1996 Harley Davidson V-twin PowerSuperb Art Nouveau Sterling Silver Belt Buckle Birds Doves Leaves Made In 1908Vogt Sterling Silver .925 10k Gold Belt Buckle 2.9 Troy Oz 89 Grams Not ScrapAdidas Men's Golf Trophy Belt Chrome Buckle Smooth Leather Strap White 36"Beige And Blue Gucci Belt With Interlocking Gg Buckle100 Cm Fits A 34,36 WaistVntg Navajo Gene & Martha Jackson 3 Piece Coral Sterling Silver Belt Buckle SetGenuine Crocodile Horn Leather Belt W/solid Sterling Silver Buckle Fits Sz.30-32Vintage Inlaid Turquoise Belt Buckle - For A Man Or WomanSalvatore Ferragamo Belt Reversible White/black Big Buckle 95 CmGucci Men's Black Leather Topstitched & Silver Script Buckle Belt Size 95/38Gucci Mens Belt With Interlocking G White Gold Chrome Buckle Vintage Schwinn Bicycle Co Paramount Belt Buckle 1977 Nos New Old Stock OrnateWwi German Gott Mit Uns Original Brass Field Belt Buckle Gucci Italy Navy Blue Leather Gold Gg Buckle Belt Excellent Free Shipping