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”)

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]

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]

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    

Valentino Camel Brown 36 90 Leopard Hair Skinny Logo Buckle Belt $525 Hzv358Antique Old Pawn Zuni American Indian Needlepoint Turquoise Sterling Belt BuckleHermes Reversible Black & Brown Leather Gold-plated H Buckle Belt Size 70New Buckle Belt Hermes 32mm H Brosse Quizz Silver + Dust Bag H Authentic FranceVintage 1977 Kiss Ace Frehley Belt Buckle Pacifica Aucoin Casablanca Records Burberry Dane 35 Charcoal Black 38 Check Plaque Buckle Belt New $275 Hzv322Authentic Gucci 114984 H17ar Signature Web Belt With Interlocking G BuckleVintage 1977 Kiss Gene Simmons Belt Buckle Pacifica Aucoin Casablanca Records Chrome Hearts 1989 Sterling Belt BuckleVintage Old Pawn Preston Monongye Sterling Silver Overlay Mission Belt Buckle Vtg Navajo Signed Kk Sterling Silver Applique Turquoise Coral Belt Buckle | G LxGucci Signature Gg Supreme Blue 50 125 Coated Canvas Buckle Belt $325 Hzv353Burberry Dane 35 Charcoal Black 40 Check Plaque Buckle Waist Belt $275 Hzv351Vintage Old Pawn Apachito Navajo Squash Blossom Coral Turquoise Belt BuckleOrig Civil War Gilded Brass Naval Two Piece Belt Buckle / Matching Numbers -excWwi Imperial German Bavarian Belt Buckle-original-in Treue FestGucci Signature Web 2pc Black Red Green 42/44 Leather Gg Buckle Belt $650 Hzv342Hermes Belt And Buckle In 85 (32 - 34 Waist) With ReceiptsRare Antique American Militia Brass Belt Buckle 1820-1845 Fr Ny Estate Civil WarGucci Signature Gg Supreme 2pc White 34/48 Canvas Leather Buckle Belt $650 Hz348Gucci Gg Imprime 2pcs Black 40/46 Leather Embossed Logo Buckle Belt $325 Hzv344Original Civil War Us Brass Belt Buckle Arrow Hooks Lot Of Various Hells Angels Biker Support Stickers Pins Belt Buckle PatchesClassic 32mm Hermès Belt Kit Brown Tan Togo Gold Polished Buckle Herme Size 90Vintage ~ Gerber Touche Belt Buckle Knife - U.s.a MadeListing #1 Of 7 - Sterling Silver W/ Turquoise Belt Buckle Vintage Western Bally Baldek Reversible Black Beige 42 Leather Web Striped Buckle Belt $250 H356Darryl Becenti "four Winds" Concho Belt Buckle Sterling Silver Native AmericanHermes Men Belt Blk/gold 32-34 Never Used 100% Auth. Buckle & Belt OnlyVintage 1977 Kiss Paul Stanley Belt Buckle Pacifica Aucoin Casablanca Records Vintage Genuine Men's Crocodile Belt, 925 Sterling Silver Belt Buckle Sz 40/42Gucci Signature Gg Supreme 2pc White 40/46 Canvas Leather Buckle Belt $650 Hz3431938~ama~gypsy Tour~american Motorcycle Association~art Deco Orig. Belt Buckle~Versace Black Men Medusa Belt Gold Studded & Buckle Sz 40_44 NewVintage Clint Orms Sterling Silver Western Belt Buckle Set Chrome Hearts Leather Belt With "cemetery Cross" Buckle ,length 105 Silver 925Gucci Nylon Black & White Stripe Chrome Metal Buckle Belt 40" Long BeautifulVintage Navajo, Indian, Native American, Sterling Silver Turquoise Belt Buckle!Rare Civil War Era Artillery Fuse Belt Holder -roller Buckle -likely ConfederateLucien Pellat-finet Buckle Belt New Sz 32/80 Leather Scull Hemp Leaf Print $760Ryan Adams Belt Buckle Rare WhiskeytownBurberry Dane 35 Charcoal Black 34 Check Plaque Buckle Waist Belt $275 Hzv349Ww2 German Prussian Fire Department Dress Bayonet With Belt-buckle-knot CordMen's Black Suede Gucci Belt With Interlocking G Buckle 36-38Vintage Navajo Sterling Silver Turquoise Western Belt Buckle -for 1" BeltTiffany & Co Man's Sterling Silver .925 Belt Buckle Original Pouch And BoxRare Indian War Era Cavalry Belt And Buckle With Keeper- Sword FittingLucien Pellat-finet Scull Buckle Belt New Sz 40/100 Natural Tan Leather $645Sterling Silver - Bali Woven Belt Buckle Bangle 17.2g - Bracelet (6.5") Rw7041Vintage Vogt Sterling Silver 4 Pc Western Ranger Belt Buckle SetNice Indian War Us Army Officer's Brocade Belt And BuckleVtg Zuni Sterling Silver Turquoise Inlay Hummingbird Symbol Belt Buckle | G BbWw1 French Souvenir Matchbox Holder From A Shell Case & German Belt BuckleLouis Vuitton Belt Buckle. Buckle Only!Bianchi 2001 U.s. Army General Officers Pistol Belt M12 Holster Mag Pouch BuckleAuth Vintage Chanel Cc Logo Buckle 26 Black Leather Belt 65/26 Ghw R67832001 U.s. Army General Officers Black Leather Belt & Gold Buckle Size 38Gucci Red Navy Blue Stripes Unisex Clip Buckle Belt 85/34 Gg Monogram 33 InchesDouglas Magnus Santa Fe Heartline Sterling Silver Buckle Set Snakeskin BeltNative American Sterling Silver & Turquoise Belt Buckle Navajo