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]

Ventagli.org

Ventagli.org

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]

Antiquespectacles.com

Antiquespectacles.com

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 Sterling Silver Pierce & Engraved Nurse Or Ladies Belt Buckle Dated 1907Ww1 German Belt, Buckle, 2 Ammo Pouches, Bayonet Frog And Bread Bag StrapVogt 1" 4 Pc. Sterling Ranger Buckle Set W/beltLarge Signed Navajo Sterling Silver Morenci Turquoise Stone Western Belt BuckleAntique Sterling Silver Pierce & Engraved Nurse Or Ladies Belt Buckle Dated 1902Vintage Signed Large 110g Sterling Silver Navajo Indian Belt Buckle Antique CoinRare! Antique 1936 Berlin Olympics Olympische Spiele Enamel Belt Buckle SouvenirChrome Hearts Classic Oval Cross Sterling Silver Belt Buckle - 3'' X 2 1/4''Vtg Navajo Sterling Silver Turquoise Coral Badger Claw Belt Buckle By "tke" | JHermes Leather Reversible Belt Kit, "h" Buckle, Black/brown, 29-34'Fine~vintage~navajo~james Toadlena~sterling Silver~turquoise~coral~belt BuckleGucci Spike Buckle Waist Belt New 70/28 (s) Black Crocodile Leather $1,550Signed Owsley Bear Stanley Bronze Grateful Dead Belt Buckle Steal Your Face RareVintage Navajo Sterling Silver Stamped Tribal Native American Belt Buckle 65.9g Original U.s. Civil War Belt Buckle Metal Detector Find K. Faberg1950s Zuni Sterling Silver & Turquoise Snake Belt Buckle Dan Simplicio | Rs AiHermes Constance Reversible Belt Black Brown Leather Gold H Buckle 75 29.5" BoxWw2 Original German Jungvolk Belt BuckleTurquoise Set In A Sterling Silver Belt Buckle - A Beautiful Piece*****Gucci Black 36 60 Leather Gg Embossed Interlock Buckle Waist Belt $325 Hpi685Mccabe Sterling Ranger Buckle Set On Belt 3 Pieces 3/4"Vtg 4 Piece Sterling Silver Ranger Belt Buckle Set X2 Keepers Tip Western TooledBoy Scout Order Of The Arrow Oa Uniform Belt Buckle Badge Bsa Award Noac 2015Navajo Sterling Silver Turquoise Coral Shell Malachite Cobblestone Belt Buckle JNavajo Sterling Silver & Royston Turquoise Belt Buckle Bk Pine Springs | Rs100% Authentic Gucci Black Leather Beige Canvas Womens Belt Silver "gg" Buckle Hermes Paris Women Belt H Buckle Civil War Union Army Cartridge Box Belt Plate/buckle - No ReserveNursing Belt Solid Silver Buckle 91.2gOld Pawn Sterling Silver Turquoise Sand Cast Belt Buckle Navajo Indian JewelryOld Pawn Sterling Silver Turquoise Sand Cast Belt Buckle Navajo Indian JewelryNew, Authentic Harley-davidson Belt Buckle 1966 Shovelhead Limited EditionVintage Frank Patania Sterling Silver & Turquoise Belt Buckle! Nice!Jobeth Maize Zuni Vintage Sterling Silver Turquoise Indian Belt Buckle 33.8gIndian Wars Era Us Army Pattern 1874 Brass Belt Buckle Plate- Santa FeSterling Silver - Navajo Handmade Concho (1.5 In) 24g - Belt Buckle Ov9551Ferragamo Leather Belt Reversible Black Brown W/ Logo Buckle 47" Fantastic 13640Hermes Leather Reversible Belt Kit, W/ Buckle & Box, Black/brown, 24-28'Great Civil War Veteran G A R Buckle On U S Marked Leather BeltHeavy Vintage Navajo Sandcast Silver & Turquoise Belt Buckle- Hermes Constance Reversible Belt Black Brown Leather Silver H Buckle 70 27.5"Original Civil War Us Brass Belt Buckle Dug Plate Relic Arrow Hooks Adjuster Cartier Santos Belt BuckleViktor & Rolf New Man Black Leather Belt Size 95 Cm Made Italy $253 Logo BuckleMichael Kors Logo Buckle BeltSterling Silver - Heavy 1921 Us Morgan Dollar (1 In) 64g - Belt Buckle Ov9581Sterling Silver - Heavy Navajo Turquoise (1.75 In) 73g - Belt Buckle Ov9611Puig Doria Sterling Silver 14k Gold Buckle Belt Band Ring 11.5 Grams NrVintage Hermes 110 Black Leather Belt Silver H Logo Buckle 50 InSalvatore Ferragamo Mens Belt Xl Buckle Silver 100cm 32-36 Reversible White/blkMattel 1867 Remington Derringer Cast Metal Belt Buckle Swing Out Lock Cap Gun NrLarge Old Signed Spiderweb Royston Turquoise 88.3g 925 Silver Mans Belt BuckleChanel Black Canvas & Gold-tone Monogram Buckle Slide Belt 94pMen's Gucci Leather Belt G Buckle Size 36Vintage Sterling Silver Chunky Turquoise Navajo Indian Belt Buckle Signed Dh Kiss Belt Buckle 1978 Pacifica Mfg. La CaliforniaSalvatore Ferragamo Reversible Belt Black Leather Silver BuckleC.c. Filson Double-thickness Dark Brown Bridle Leather Belt Size 38 Brass BuckleGucci Black Womens Monogram Canvas & Leather Silver Gg Buckle Belt Sz.s-m/80cm