Luxist Speaks to Lisa Sorrell about Cowboys and Sorrell's Custom Boots
Boots are special by dint of numerical minority: most people don't wear them, so we tend to notice them. As well, they present a larger palette for expression and are often expressive far beyond mere size. Yet the statements most boots make concern their wearers: the bella donna in an intoxicating pair of thigh-high Cavallis will probably have you wondering what other influences she might be able to exert on you.
But there is no archetypical wearer, no marble goddess eternally posing in an ur-Cavalli-thigh-high to which all subsequent thigh highs can pray for inspiration. (And yes, we do think that is a shame...)
Cowboy boots, on the other hand, speak to origins and a certain history in a way that few other boots do. Wellington wearers aren't trying to channel Napoleon's nemesis, nor are those in postilions likely to be anywhere near a coach – whereas the very point of a cowboy boot is to recall the men of the prairie. They are the Grecian urns of the American West, but instead of wine, their 10-inch, stitched and inlaid and tanned leather tops are portage for the overflowing, canteen-stained aura of "selfless, honest, independent, and self-reliant" loners.
And when you put them on, those are the waters in which you choose to dip your feet.
The problem, as with most cult relics, is that they are poorly understood. So Luxist spoke to custom boot maker Lisa Sorrell of Sorrell's Custom Boots – whose average boot runs $6,000 – to learn more about how the West was worn. One of the first things she told us: "I tell my customers that cowboy boots are a way for men to wear high heels and bright colors."
Poorly understood, indeed...
Gallery: Lisa Sorrell's Custom Boots
Sorrell works primarily in alligator, crocodile and ostrich for the vamps, with tops of kangaroo leather – "Typically I do a very fancy inlaid, exotic boot." You'll need at least $3,500 to get yourself into a pair of Sorrell's, but plenty of customers walk – or strut – into the crimson west having spent twice that or more. An alligator vamp alone will add $2,100 to the price. And they don't do it quickly: she builds every boot by hand, and even though she can finish three pairs a month, each pair takes eight months to a year to complete.
The process represents a continuing trail of devotion from a woman who makes no claims to any cowgirl history. "I love and respect the heritage but I'm not a cowboy and my customers aren't, so I approach it from a design standpoint: they fit well, they're great for your feet and they look good."
"There's a lot of expectation that cowboy boot makers should be cowboys, but historically they came from tailoring or shoemaking backgrounds," she said. "The ability to ride a horse does not help the ability to make boots. I don't work with a horse, I work with feet."
Sorrell started off stitching boot tops – "with an old guy who screamed and cussed" – after moving to Oklahoma and answering an ad in the paper. She spent the next three years and several thousand dollars apprenticing with two boot makers, learning the art from the top down.
"This is not a cheap business to get into. I charge $6,500 for a four-week course in making boots. Then you have all the leather and the machinery and the mistakes you're going to make."
She opened her own shop in 1995 and found that she had to spend just as much time on fit, and correcting perceptions, as she did building boots. Cowboy boots were recurring fashion crazes for nearly a century, from William S. Hart's silent films to Tom Mix's work in Wild West shows to the prewar explosion of Gene Autry and the postwar explosion of Lucchese and Tony Lama to Travolta's Urban Cowboy. The crazed, however – both boot makers and wearers – weren't always focused on fit, and being stuck in a bad boot is hard penance many did not forget.
"So many people don't understand fit, not only with cowboy boots but all shoes – that's why we're seeing so much cushioning: it disguises the fact that the shoes don't fit you. Wearing a tennis shoe is like a pillow in a shoebox."
That's why Sorrell spends a lot of time making sure a customer's feet will be happy inside their homes of hides.
"It's not enough to make a beautiful cowboy boot," Sorrell said. "It has to fit properly. One of the crucial areas is the ball or instep; you don't want it to be too tight. But another area that's really important is the heel. Most boots are wide, and if you have narrow feet it's hard to find a cowboy boot. But a well made boot is incredibly comfortable – they aren't soft but they support everywhere they need. If they're made properly then it simply feels like pulling on a slipper."
Ordering a proper pair of boots should be seen the same way as ordering a something like a Bentley Mulsanne: they are expensive, the choices in personalization should be savored, you'll wait eight months to take delivery, they will reward you immensely, and if you take care of them you can probably pass them on to your successors.
Once the measurements are taken, Sorrell works with the customer on the design. This is where we learned that cowboys are a colorful bunch, when Sorrell said, "My work is usually very traditional – traditional is butterflies and eagles and flowers."
The eagles we got. It was the Monarchs and magnolias that surprised. "Cowboys are very vain," she said, "and there really aren't any gender lines in cowboy boots. That's one of the things that's so great because here men can wear flowers."
A look through the works of Sorrell's hands reveals that cowboy boots are part Lascaux and part Joan Miro applied to leather, with the beasts that roam a cowboy's life winging and galloping among abstractions of flowers and stars.
"I think the flowers were inspired by nature, but it's also the shape of the boot. The top, that panel, you've got a tongue that comes up and a scallop that dips; what that gives you is an 'H' to work with [when the boot top is laid flat, which is when the designs are applied – ed], so an eagle or a butterfly, with its wingspread, works really nice with that 'H' shape."
It didn't start out that way, though. In the mid-to-late 1800s the cowboy mystique was dressed in leftover Civil War boots, shoddy, blunt black things devoid of any heel and quick to fall apart. It wasn't until the mid-1890s – when the raw, wild years of the interstate, cattle-driving cowboy were all but over – that the modern boot developed. That boot leaped so quickly into the vibrant spectacle of showmanship, in the process becoming vibrantly colored and heeled, that many aren't sure exactly who gets the credit for the boot: the cowboys or their admirers.
That's why boot makers will give different explanations for the origin of the heel: some say it is to help stay in the stirrup, some say it is for bulldogging cattle. Other boot makers counter that a cowboy lets his horse bring down the cattle, and one boot maker said he wears a heel because he doesn't want people thinking he's a fence-builder.
Yet they all agreed on what a heel is good for now: "to look purty. With a 'u.' The high heel is all about vanity."
"Women wear high heels because it makes their legs look longer and their butts look smaller," Sorrell said. Cowboys, though, are fixated on making their feet look smaller.
"The boot maker that trained me wears a size 11. He told me he put a high heel on his boots because the high heel enabled him to wear a 10.5. If you read Louis L'Amour books the bad guy is always a tall guy with small feet."
Once you know how large you want your feet to look, the rest is easy by comparison: you can develop inlaid and overlaid designs with Sorrell or gander upon a spectacular assortment of the vaquero's finery in books like Cowboy Boots, The Art & Sole (which has Sorrell's boots in it). What remains is essentially love and technique.
"My most common heel is 1 ¾-inch, a very traditional height – most of my lasts are from the 1940s and that's the heel height they had. The way the top is shaped just depends on the customer's preferences, and as far as toes it's simply what you want to look down and see."
As to whether you should choose Sorrell herself when it comes to boots, her advice, again, goes back to fit: "If you want plain black then you probably don't want to come to me. I can do it, but if you look at my site you'll see that's not where my boot inclinations take me. Find a bootmaker who appeals to your sense of color and design. It's like a relationship – you'll get the boots you want if you choose a boot maker you really have a connection with."
Lisa Sorrell at Sorrell's Custom Boots in Guthrie, Oklahoma can be reached at +1 (405) 282-5464 or customboots(at)aol.com.