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    

Genuine Vintage German Wwii (ww2) Belt Buckle With Belt.Vintage~cast~navajo~arnold Maloney~sterling Silver~turquoise~belt BuckleWw Ii Black German Army Leather Belt 32" In Length, And BuckleNavajo Authentic Robert Becenti Detailed Belt Buckle Exceptional Turquoise NrVintage Sterling Silver Turquoise Concho Belt - Signed Vw Leather BuckleVintage 1980s Apple Computers Solid Brass Belt Buckle Bts Retro Old 2.25" WideVintage Sterling Silver Nurses Belt Buckle No ReserveDug Outside Of Atlanta Ga Confederate Sword Belt Buckle Tongue And Wreath1940 Hubley "army 45" A9.1.1 / Leather "u.s Army" Cap Gun Holster W/ Belt BuckleVintage Old Pawn Huge Navajo R Shakey Turquoise Sterling Belt Buckle SouthwestVintage Mccabe Hollywood Sterling 14k Ruby Stone Western Belt, Buckle, Tab & BarBelt Buckle With 1922 Liberty Peace Dollar On Sterling Silver Belt Buckle Indian War Era M1872 Soldier's " Us " Sword Belt With Orig Brass Belt BuckleVtg Southwest Western Americana Turquoise&coral Sterling Silver Belt Buckle YqzVintage Sterling Silver Navajo Belt Buckle, Hallmarked Two Crescent Moons 55.5gKiss Belt Buckle Rock & Roll Over Pacifica Mfg 1977 VintageVintage Fresh Estate Find Mexico Southwest Silver Western Belt Buckle Turquoise Matt Sterling Silver Turquoise Coral Vtg 1970s Ear Belt Buckle Navajo Southwest1939-45 Wwii Germay Luftwaffe Belt BuckleOriginal Ww1 German Soldiers Gott Mit Uns Belt Buckle With Swivel And Pins1939-45 Wwii Germany Luftwaffe Belt With BuckleU.s. Civil War Union Belt Buckle With Uniform ButtonsVintage**ibew**international Brotherhood Of Electrical Workers Belt BuckleVintage Ibew International Brotherhood Of Electrical Workers Belt Buckle Vintage Sunset Trails Sterling Silver & 10k Gold Longhorn Belt Buckle, 29gSolid Silver Nurses Belt Buckle F/hOriginal Royal North West Mounted Police Belt Buckle BadgeAged Repro? Civil War Louisiana Two Piece Belt BuckleAged Repro? Civil War Csa Belt BuckleAged Repro? Civil War Alabama Two Piece Belt BuckleCivil War Officers Leather Belt, Without Buckle - Rock Island MarkedAged Repro? Civio War Mississippi Two Piece Belt BuckleSterling Silver Antique Mexican Handmade Modernist Belt Buckle Catches & Tip SetCivil War Alabama Belt Buckle Plate ConfederateAged Repro? Civil War Texas Belt BuckleAged Repro? Civil War Csa Belt BucklePre Civil War Belt & BuckleVintage Harley Davidson Belt Buckle United States Solid BrassVictorian Fire Chief's Belt And BuckleJohn Deere Tractor Belt Buckle Bronze New #2 Owsley Stanley. Original Grateful Dead Steal Your Face Belt BuckleChinese Stone Belt BuckleAuth Vintage Chanel Logos Buckle Black Leather Belt - Size 80New Tom Ford Black/brown Leather. T Buckle Logo Belt 90/36*rare* Christopher Ross Large Bulldog 24 K Gold Plate Belt Buckle. Rare Bohlin Made Sterling & 18k Rose/yellow Gold Western 3-piece Belt Buckle SetMens Gucci Tiger Buckle Belt In Red Size 95/38 Mattel 1958 Shootin Shell Fanner & Belt Buckle Derringer Set- Original Box New With Tags Men's Gucci Guccissima Black Leather Belt With Gold Belt Buckle Star Wars Prop Darth Vader Belt Set - Leather Belt Light Up Boxes BuckleAwesome 1977 Designer Sterling & 14k Gold Large Belt Buckle Signed ColetteNwt Mcm Men's Red Monogrammed/ Black Reversible Gold Buckle Belt Cut To SizeCartier Santos Belt Gold Buckle Leather Authentic New Box Dustbag Gucci Brown Suede Belt With Double G BuckleBob Berg Trophy Rodeo Champion Belt Buckle Bull Rider RidingGenuine Alligator Skin Belt Usa With Solid Brass Buckle Italy By Pat Areias1992 Grateful Dead Belt Buckle Set Of 3Modernist Vintage Designer Signed 14k Yellow Gold Diamond Stone Belt Buckle RingVintage 1940s Birks Rideau Belt Buckle WatchAntique Victorian Edwardian Brass /silver Niello Panel Russian? Buckle Belt