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    

Salvatore Ferragamo Gold Buckle Belt Reversible 105cm Unisex Versace Gucci1885 English Victorian Hm Sterling Silver Belt Buckle Bracelet Heavy Old BangleCirca1863 Union Civil War Sword Belt And BuckleLouis Vuitton Epi Leather Lv Buckle Belt New Sz 90/361/4 Plate, Civil War Tintype, "upside Down Belt Buckle" Confederate? Union? Early Navajo Leather Belt W/classic Cast Silver BuckleEdward H. Bohlin Sterling Silver & 14k Gold Belt BuckleVintage Civil War Era 2 Piece Cs Military Belt Buckle No ReserveVintage Civil War Era 2 Piece Military Belt & Eagle Buckle No ReserveVery Large Old Pawn Navajo Turquoise Slab Sterling Belt BuckleSalvatore Ferragamo Silver Gancio Gold Logo Buckle Tan Leather Belt Sz LAmazing Vintage Old Pawn Navajo Turquoise Coral Ornate Sterling Belt BuckleCampaign Ss06 Dior Homme Black "stars" Leather Buckle Belt Sz.85 By Hedi SlimaneVintage Civil War Era 2 Piece Military Belt Buckle No ReserveAuthentic Hermes Belt Black/brown Or Navy/red Constance Palladium BuckleVtg Sterling Silver +10k Gold +ruby Western Belt Buckle Keepers & Tip Ranger SetOld Elegant Navajo Cast Slvr Belt Buckle W/two Turquoise100% Authentic Leather Hermes Black/brown Reversible Belt And Gold "h" BuckleOriginal Ww1 Turkish Belt BuckleCartier Belt [reversible Black/brown Size 34 W/ Gold Buckle] *authentic Cartier*67-69 F-body Front Black Seatbelt Set Seat Belt Buckle Factory Z28 Rs Ss Gm OemMen's Gucci Belt 2 Toned Gg Buckle , Patent Black, Size 90, Waist Size 30-31Wwi/ww1 Imperial German Army Stormtroopers Belt BucklePreowned Used W/case Hermes Silver Buckle W/black Leather Belt 95cm "only 1"Ruca Aaron Horkey Banjo Owl Fedora Belt Buckle Steampunk Bluegrass SkateboardEarly Tommy Singer Navajo Sterling Silver & Turquoise Belt BuckleEdward H. Bohlin Sterling Silver Western Belt Buckle Vintage Engraved FloralRare Vintage Southwestern Navajo Sterling Silver Indian Head Belt Buckle SignedGokaiger Power Ranger Super Megaforce Gokai Saber Gun Buckle Belt 36 Ranger Key Antique Vintage Chinese Silver Repousse Carved Turquoise Floral Belt BuckleWwf Winged Eagle Championship Belt Buckle 1996 Wwe Rare VintageRicardo- Sterling Silver W/ 10k Accents & Red Stones Western Belt BuckleWw1 Original German Belt BuckleBeautiful, Native American, Sterling Silver, Belt Buckle - No Reserve!Authentic Hermes 32mm Gold Belt Buckle1921 Morgan Silver Dollar Sterling Silver Belt Buckle @ K1383Black Versace Belt/gold Medusa Head BuckleR A Guthrie Designs Sterling Silver Western Ranger Belt Buckle W/2 Belt KeepersLarge Vintage Old Pawn Sterling Navajo Spencer Turquoise Faux Claw Belt BuckleWestern Sterling Silver 1" Tip W/belt Keeper For Western Belt Buckle *rare 1880's Mills .30 Cal. Cartridge Belt & Buckle 50 Double Loops*Very Desirable Indian War Era Officer's Nickle Silver Buckle With Belt -niceOld Pawn 1960's Vintage Navajo Belt Buckle With Green Turquoise Signed FpPre Wwii German Red Cross 1933 Pattern Belt Buckle-original-scarceNavajo - Willie Yazzie - Sterling Silver Overlay Belt Buckle - SignedBrown Leather Bianchi #b3 42" Holster Belt Basketweave Stitched Brass Buckle Massive Huge Solid Silver Turquoise Red Coral Vintage Belt BuckleVintage Sterr's Reno Silver Shop Sterling Silver Ranger Buckle And BeltGerman Ww2 Officer Open Buckle Leather Pistol Belt Germany No ReserveInfr Stock Contractor Western Rodeo Trophy Belt Buckle - Bucking Horse - 2012Original Dug Us Union Federal Puppy Paw Civil War Belt Buckle From ShilohOld Pawn Begay Chunky Pillow Inlay Turquoise Coral 86g 925 Silver Belt Buckle NrEm Signed Zuni Turquoise Native Style Sterling Silver Belt Buckle @ OFine~navajo~juliana Williams~sterling Silver~turquoise~concho Style~belt BuckleAntique Art Deco Rhinestone Belt W Buckle 6 Rows Sparkling Clear Prong-set 34"Salvatore Ferragamo Men's Signature Double Gancini Belt Buckle (buckle Only)World War I German Belt BuckleHollands 102 Sterling 14k - 4 Piece Ranger Belt & Buckle Set - Great Condition100% Authentic Gucci Belt Red Suede With Red Buckle European Size 85 34inches Beige And Blue Gucci Belt With Interlocking Gg Buckle 95cm Fits A 32,34 Waist