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Note, if you want information about how and where to wear boots, such as with dress clothes to work, a night on the town, or whether to tuck jeans into boots, please read this page titled, "Wearing Cowboy Boots."
I have chosen boots as my primary form of footwear for more than 40 years. I wear cowboy boots, motorcycle boots and work boots as my activities and interests dictate. Over time, I have learned a thing or two about boots. I thought I would share what I have learned. Note, if you landed on this page when seeking information specifically about motorcycle boots, check the following pages on this website:
I begin this discussion with the following assumptions in mind:
My thoughts below reflect these assumptions.
1. Types of boots
This tutorial is about choosing boots for regular footwear -- not for specialty purposes such as skiing, hiking, skydiving, or motocross. Most guys who wear boots regularly wear three major types of boots: cowboy boots, motorcycle boots, or work boots. I own and wear all three styles. I choose the right boots for the right application. For example, motorcycle boots with good tread soles when I ride my Harley; nice-looking cowboy boots that go well with dress clothes or a suit for work; and work boots that can withstand dirt, mud, and abuse while I do home renovation projects and yardwork.
There are many substyles of boots. For example, cowboy boots can be traditional, buckaroo (tall), roper, paddock-horse style, or combinations of these styles. Motorcycle boots can be short and have a work-boot appearance, or tall, such as used by motor patrol officers (bike cops). There are many variations in between. Then there are specialty boots, such as those used for skiing, skydiving, hiking, motocross, or other active sports; Chelsea dress boots that some men wear; rubber boots for use in certain work and play environments; lineman and logger boots, which are substyles of a general work boot, etc. Ultimately, choosing a substyle involves both knowing where and how the boots will be worn, as well as personal preference.
How to decide?
Ask yourself these questions:
1. Where will I wear the boots?
Work site: if you will be wearing boots at work, and the worksite is in construction, utilities, or the like, then you want to select boots that are rugged and can withstand variations in temperature, exposure to water and mud, and are comfortable.
Comfort is very important. If you have to wear boots all day, they have to be comfortable or you will be miserable. Today's manufacturers of work boots have developed features that make work boots far more comfortable than they were even a decade ago. A padded collar, built-in soft insoles, arch support, sturdy lug sole, and adjustable lacing make work boots easy to wear, and feel as comfortable as an old pair of sneakers. Some work boots are designed to comply with safety requirements, such as having a steel toe (or not), and a sole that resists oil, electrical shock, and heat. If you are required to wear boots for work of this nature, check to see if your employer has specifications for the type of boot to buy. There is no sense in buying boots that do not meet OSHA and state safety requirements, or your employer's specifications.
Office: This is an obvious matter but is sometimes overlooked -- If you will be wearing boots in an office environment, then you want to choose boots that go with the dress code expectations of the environment. Do you see other men at the office only wearing polished black dress wingtip shoes? Are there variations, such as some men who wear loafers or comfortable walking shoes? If you're going to wear boots at the office, what you choose needs to fit in so you are comfortable and the boss doesn't make an issue of what's on your feet. Boots that are shined, have leather soles, and are subdued in color (black, grey, brown), and have rounded toes that look like the toes on shoes, generally are the best choice to wear in an office environment. Boots with "flash" such as high heels, colorful inlays, narrow "X" toes, steel or metal toe or heel rands, or are made of exotic skins that are quite noticeable, may not fit in this environment.
Daily life: besides going to work, what else do you do? Shopping, running errands, socializing with friends, engaging in sports, motorcycling, eating out? Obviously, your decisions on choosing boots for certain activities may be more difficult depending on what you will being doing and where you will be going. Generally, though, if I will be engaging in activities where the ground under my feet will be wet, then I choose boots with a rugged, rubber sole, rather than boots with leather soles, so I can avoid slipping. If I will be standing for a long time, then I choose boots that are very comfortable, have excellent insole and arch support, and have been broken in so they conform well to my foot. If I will be on my motorcycle, then I choose boots with a good tread so when I plant my boots on pavement, I will have better control of my bike. If I will be skydiving, then I choose boots designed for that sport, that are both functional and practical.
2. How often will I wear the boots?
How often you wear boots is also very personal. I wear boots every day. I do not own a pair of shoes. In that case, I usually choose a pair of boots to wear to work, then when I get home, I change to boots that go with jeans or leather (depending on what I'm wearing), and perhaps even change again, if I do work in the yard, take a ride on my motorcycle, or go to a meeting and have to dress up a bit. (If I ever ate dinner out, that would also affect my choice of boots.) On weekends, it is common for me to change boots four or five times a day, depending on what I am doing, how I am dressed, where I am going, and the weather.
If you will wear boots less than every day and not regularly to work, then your choice of boots can -- and should be -- from a more limited selection. You may have one to three pairs of boots that you might wear to the office every now and then. In that case, they may be subdued in color and have a low heel. If you ride a motorcycle and wear boots only while riding, you may choose one or two pairs of boots for that purpose. Or you may choose to put on boots when you do work around the house.
The decision on what boots to buy has a lot to do with how often and where you will wear them.
3. How does the weather affect a choice of boots to wear?
I have covered a lot of this already, but consider these additional factors.
4. How tall do I want the boots to be?
Boot height is also a purely personal decision. While some guys really enjoy wearing boots with leather or jeans tucked into them, the vast majority of guys wear jeans or pants over their boots, so the wearer is the only one who knows how tall the boots are.
How do I choose boot height? I have these criteria:
5. What materials do I want the boots to be made of?
There are almost as many materials that boots are made out of as there were animals in Noah's Ark. The most common and ubiquitous is leather. Cowhide is durable and water-resistant. Calfskin is a softer-feeling cow leather for boots. Materials from which boots are made may also include: alligator, buffalo, eel, elephant, goat, kangaroo, lizard, ostrich, snake (cobra, python, rattlesnake). The list goes on.
Leather is the most common material from which both cowboy and motorcycle boots are made because it is durable, long-lasting, and calfskin and top grain cowhides can take an excellent shine. When choosing leather boots, make sure that the boots are made of "top grain" (or "full grain") leather. This term refers to the upper section of a hide that contains the epidermis or skin layer. It refers to hides that have not been sanded, buffed or snuffed (otherwise known as corrected) in order to remove imperfections on the surface of the hide. Only the hair has been removed from the epidermis. The grain remains in its natural state which will allow the best fiber strength, resulting in greater durability. The grain also has natural breathability, resulting in greater comfort.
Some cowboy boots are made from "Roughout" leather. "Roughout" is opposite the grain side of the skin. The grain side is smooth, and the flesh side is rough. Boots can be made with either side facing out as the finished side. Suede and roughout leather are not the same. Suede is a much thinner piece of leather that is usually made from the inner splits of a side of leather.
Beware of the switcheroo! It is common to find good-looking boots at an inexpensive price, and discover that the foot is made of leather (or snakeskin) and the shaft is made of plastic! (This is what "leather upper/balance man-made" means.) Unless the seller specifically states that the entire boot or the foot and shaft are made of leather, then you may find an artificial material on the shaft that is not durable and may crack. This is particularly true of inexpensive cowboy boots made in China. Check the label and be careful!
Snake skins are the second most common material from which cowboy boots are made. Snakeskin boots usually have the skin only on the foot of the boot, while the shaft is made of leather. Since most guys wear pants or jeans over boots, all you can see is the foot anyway, so it doesn't matter that the snakeskin is on the shaft of the boot anyway. Most of the time, "snakes" will have the skin only on the foot and on inlays on boot pulls.
There are two different "cuts" of snake skin use for cowboy boots. "Belly cut" (image left) means that the skin is cut from the softer, smoother, underside of the snake. The pattern of the snake's scale coloring is often more pronounced and visible. "Back cut" (image right) means that the skin is cut from the back of the snake. The scales of the snake's skin are usually rougher on the back, and offer a striking appearance. In both cases (belly or back-cut), the skin is dyed, and a variety of colors are avaiable.
Because it is important to try to get one full snake skin on the foot of a boot, usually only large snakes are used: cobra, python, rattlesnake. Interestingly, a market never really developed for snakeskin boots made of boa constrictors, which are very large snakes, too. (It is possible to find boa-skin boots, but they are not as plentiful as python.) Snakes whose skin is used for boots are "farmed," much like cows are farmed for their meat and hides.
Another popular skin that is used for cowboy boots is lizard. There are a variety of lizard skins available, but the most common is Teju lizard. The scales of this lizard are large and easily manipulated from which to make boots. This skin can be dyed a variety of colors as well. Being "farmed," Teju lizard boots are less expensive that other less common lizard skins.
Ostrich skins became very popular on cowboy boots because the hides are durable and water-resistant, and the birds are easily "farmed." There are three types of ostrich skin available for boots: full quill (meaning that the bumps where the feather quill entered the skin of the bird is still present), smooth (where either the quill bump has been removed or is from a part of the bird's hide where quills are smaller and less pronounced), and "ostrich leg." Ostrich leg boots are made from the leg of the bird. The skin has an unusual texture and appearance. It looks great on a pair of cowboy boots.
Other types of skins on cowboy boots are available, such as kangaroo and alligator. Kangaroo leather is rather soft, and easily scratched and scuffed. Alligator skins are selected often because the scales of the hide are unusual and look interesting on a pair of boots. Hornback Caiman alligator skin is found more often on cowboy boots because these alligators produce large hides and the 'gators are easily farmed for this purpose. The bootmaker using Caiman alligator skins gets a very good return on his investment, because the costs to produced the skin are reasonable (compared with others) and the mark-up for boots of this skin is high.
Comfort of boots made of different hides (caiman, ostrich, python, etc.) has nothing to do with the skin from which the boots are made. Comfort is determined by how the sole and footbed is constructed, and whether a cushion insole is included. I put this statement in here because of the number of inquiries such as "are ostrich boots comfortable?" that direct visitors to this article. Comfort is directly related to quality construction of the interior of the boot, not what's on the outside.
6. How long will I wear the boots on a given day?
The longest I wear a pair of boots on a weekday is about ten hours, from the time I leave home for work in my office until the time I get home and change to something else. There are some days when, for example, I may be going on an all-day motorcycle ride, and will have the same pair of boots on for as long as 15 hours. There are other days when my activities change as rapidly as my boots do, and I may have a pair of boots on for a few hours at a time, and change six times. It really varies. I guess that's why I have so many pairs of boots!
7. Who made the boots (manufacturer?)
The manufacturer of the boot is very important. When you look for a quality piece of clothing, you often look at the label. Same is true for boots. Some manufacturers have a superb reputation for quality, while others do not seem to care.
There are some major custom cowboy bootmakers. A "bootmaker" is different from a "manufacturer" in that a bootmaker usually has a small production facility, small staff, and makes fewer pairs of boots than a commercial "production" manufacturer will make each year. Examples of quality bootmakers are out there for searching, but change often. There are many more custom, quality bootmakers.
Major commercial cowboy boot manufacturers include Ariat, Dan Post, Double H, Georgia, Justin, Lucchese, Nocona, Olathe, Sendra, Tony Lama, and others. Cheap (low-quality) cowboy boot makes include Abilene, Cowtown, Dingo, Durango, and Laredo. Generally, if the boot manufacturer's name is a name of a town in Texas, then the boot is made in China.
For the most part these days, cowboy boots are assembled in Mexico for the U.S. market. Other boots once made in the U.S., such as Frye and Harley-Davidson branded boots, may be made by third-party companies that license the famous name and have boots made with inferior materials and workmanship.
Major commercial manufacturers of motorcycle boots are more limited. These include All American, Chippewa, Dehner, Wesco, and others. These manufacturers make the majority of U.S.-made motorcycle boots. Boots with the Harley-Davidson brand are actually made in China for the U.S. market (some are good, some are not. The price is high, anyway, but that's for the H-D label, not the quality.) Since I do not participate in motocross activities, I do not own any motocross boots and therefore have no comment about these types of boots.
There are many different manufacturers of boots -- many more than are listed here. Generally speaking, if a pair of boots cost less than US$100, they are not made of all leather and are made to inferior standards. The term, "you get what you pay for," definitely applies.
8. Features of boots to look for
Leather on the boots must be of good quality, such as top grain cowhide. If it says "leather upper, balance manmade" then beware that the shaft is made of plastic, not leather.
Boots that are lined with leather, as most cowboy boots and some motorcycle boots are made will stand up on their own and not flop over. Further, leather-lined boots are more comfortable and actually do not get as hot as boots that are unlined. It's also likely that lined boots will not chafe the sensitive skin on your calfs.
Stitching on a pair of boots must also be of good quality. Double-stitching of the sole and on the shaft seam is a must. Decorative stitching on the toe, foot, or shaft is an aesthetic feature and a purely personal choice.
The sole of a boot makes a difference if you require traction for certain activities such as motorcycling. Smooth leather soles work fine in an office environment, but not for wet conditions where the soles could cause the wearer to slip and fall.
In a cowboy boot, look for a pegged sole -- where small wooden pegs are driven through the outsole to the insole (see image, left). Pegs add durability and generally speaking, are a sign of a high quality boot.
If you are not accustomed to wearing boots, then choose boots with a heel similar to a shoe. Roper boots have a low heel, and are the most common boots worn in the American southwest.
If you prefer a traditional cowboy boot, look for a "walking heel" which is not as high as a riding heel, and provides more surface upon which to walk. Boots with these soles also make the distinctive "cowboy boot clunk" sound when you walk in them.
Some fancier cowboy boots have riding heels and may have a spur ledge (what spurs rest on so they don't fall below the heel). Riding heels look great and add height for guys who want to stand tall in boots. However, heels of two inches or higher are harder on the foot and more difficult to walk in. Hi-heeled boots may be a fashion statement to some, but some men have reported having trouble walking in them and foot pain, as well as being more likely to trip while wearing them, especially when climbing up stairs.
Look for the type of insole built into the boot. "Cushion insole" or "gel flex insole" may be used in advertising and marketing -- for good reason. Boots that come with qualilty cushion insoles will feel better, last longer, and be more comfortable. You can purchase insole inserts for boots from a third-party provider such as Dr. Scholls. If you do, choose gel insoles rather than foam-only insoles that tend to wear flat quickly. Beware: inexpensive boots that suggest they have orthotic inserts probably only have a plastic insert in the heel, which provides absolutely no orthotic support.
9. Does color make a difference?
No. If the color is anything other than "natural," the boot is dyed anyway. Subdued colors (black, brown, grey) may work better in an office environment where most other men wear dress shoes. Other than that, the color doesn't matter. However, there are some guys who feel self-conscious about wearing boots that are dyed in unusual colors for a man's boot, such as blue, red, or yellow. Ultimately, it is a personal choice, as well as how confident the man is in wearing boots of unusual colors. Some can pull it off quite well!
10. What about the price factor?
It is NOT true that the more you pay for a pair of boots, the better they are. For example, Dehner patrol boots look great, but it is quite possible to get an equally good-looking, well-made pair of bal-laced patrol boots from alternate manufacturers for half the cost. See my Guide to Motorcycle Police Patrol Boots here.
Custom boots cost much more, for obvious reasons. The boot is made to the measurements provided and sometimes from specific or higher-end leathers or skins. Custom boots can not be made in advance, so it takes time -- as much as three to four months or longer -- to receive a pair of boots made to custom specifications.
If you really have your heart set on a pair of boots made by a certain manufacturer, then you have to go with the going price. However, if you work through a major boot retailer, you can probably save US$50 - US$200 on a pair of boots made by a major manufacturer, rather than ordering from the manufacturer directly. And best yet, you may even receive the boots sooner when ordered through a retailer than from the manufacturer.
Cheap boots, like those made by no-name brands, are just that: cheap! Usually the boot shaft is not made from leather. If you want a pair of boots to trash up (such as stomp in mud or something like that), then cheap boots are fine. Otherwise, don't bother. You won't be happy.
11. Where are the boots made?
Boots are made all over the world, and contrary to popular belief, the United States did not invent boots. Boots have been worn since before recorded time. Currently, though, boots made in the U.S. vary in quality. Most are good, but some have their problems. For example, Wesco Boots (Scappoose, Oregon) are excellent, but limited production in the U.S. makes them expensive and it can take 3 - 4 months to recieve a new pair of Wesco Boots if they have to be made to order. Dehner boots are beautiful, but the low-end boots made with Dehcord (plastic product) do not wear well, crack, and break. Some Frye Boots are still made in the U.S. (such as 12R harness and campus boot styles), but from inferior materials and with machines. Some guys have told me that these boots have not fit well and have fallen apart soon after buying them. What I am saying is that just because a boot is made in the U.S. that there are not worthwhile alternatives to consider.
Many boots that are inexpensive (compared with similar styles that cost more) may likely be made in China. It is a sad story, but must be told: boots made in China are made by machine with cheap materials and underpaid labor. The quality of Chinese-made boots is severely lacking. Be cautious -- some major boot labels in the U.S., such as Ariat, Justin, and Tony Lama have some of their entry-level, low-end boots made in China. Check the label stamped inside the boot shaft, or look for that information in on-line descriptions. Just because a boot has a traditional American company label does not mean that it is made in the U.S.! And don't buy crap -- that is, if you want boots to look good and last a long time, avoid buying boots made in China (or Pakistan.)
Sendra boots are made in Spain, quite excellently. Many cowboy boots are assembled in Mexico. Mexican-made cowboy boots have varying quality, but are usually quite good. What you have to watch for, though, are boots that once enjoyed a premier reputation, like Frye, but are no longer made in the U.S. and the owner of the company is a holding company making money, not a real bootmaker who has boots made under that label in China.
I'm sure that there's a lot more than can be written about choosing boots. If you have something to suggest, if I got something wrong, if this was interesting or helpful, or if you have a comment (and have read this far down the page!), write to me!
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