When the going gets tough, American fashion turns to cowboy footwear


Could we have George W. Bush to thank for one of fall's biggest trends?

When there are tough economic times or when troops are in harm's way, says Cindy Chance, general manager for Carol's Western Wear in Glen Burnie and Laurel, people buy cowboy boots.

"When Americans begin to feel a threat -- from foreign territories or maybe, say, high gas prices -- that kind of kicks off a subconscious desire to self-identify with American roots," Chance says. "And that image of the American cowboy conjures in our minds thoughts of independence, freedom, integrity, a certain measure of toughness."

Even if Bush, a Texan, isn't the catalyst, cowboy boots are the hottest style to wear in this boot-crazed season. Everyone -- from celebrities such as Britney Spears, Sienna Miller and Lindsay Lohan, to city slickers and suburban moms -- has been spotted in a pair.

"Rough Riders wore them; pioneers trekked west in them. But it becomes more urban, if you will, when designers like Helmut Lang and Anna Sui and Gucci are putting them on the catwalks," says Kelly Killoren Bensimon, editor of Elle Accessories magazine.

"You can pick up every single fashion magazine, and I think you'd see almost every designer is doing some version of cowboy boots," says Wendy Lane, owner of Back at the Ranch, a cowboy boots store in New Mexico.

In addition to creating custom boots for designer Tom Ford and actors Billy Bob Thornton and Jane Fonda, Lane's store recently made a pair of cowboy boots for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

But it's not just the rich, famous and connected who are sporting the fashionably rugged look. Everyday folks have lately been discovering their inner John Wayne.

Paul Lack, executive vice president for academic affairs and dean at Villa Julie College, used to hesitantly pull out his handmade James Leddy cowboy boots around the suits and stuffy types in Maryland's circle of academia. But lately, with cowboy boots at the height of fashion, he's been quite proud of his pointy toes.

"Recently, we were on vacation in Santa Fe and I bought a hat, too," Lack says. "So now I have both the boots and the hat."

Lack's custom boots, covered in "fancy doodads," can cost between $600 and $800 -- about the price of Gucci's chocolate suede pair or Anna Sui's apple green style. But today's cowboy boots can be found at any price, and in almost any color and style imaginable -- slouchy, short, tall, even with a stiletto heel.

Proof positive: there's even baby cowboy boots.

"It's very stylish to put on cowboy boots," says Angela Edgeworth, president of Pedipeds, an infant footwear company that sells cowboy boots in pink, purple and other vibrant colors for the tiniest of would-be ranch-hands. "They're actually awfully comfortable, and they're pretty functional too. They keep your feet warm."

And they're versatile, fashion experts say.

"It's great with skirts, it's great with jeans," says shoe designer Donald J. Pliner, who wore a pair of white cowboy boots with his tuxedo at his wedding. "The colors, the materials, the embellishment. It just gives an attitude."

It's that attitude that attracts first-time cowboy-boot buyers, says Katrina Szish, style editor of Us Weekly and contributor to the how-to book, Secrets of Celebrity Style. Especially celebrities, who love their clothes to be unique and irreverent.

"There's something about cowboy boots that gives you a sense of confidence, a little extra swagger," Szish says. "It's all-American, but all-American with an edge."

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