So you've decided to go cowboy -- a little, anyway. You've seen people strolling around confidently in boots, and you've decided that you want to make a Western fashion statement by buying a pair of your own.
You'll be joining millions of Americans who wear boots for many reasons, including comfort, durability and fashion.
A survey by Yankelovich Partners showed that more than 3 of every 10 adults in the United States enjoy some elements of the Western lifestyle, and 48 percent of those own boots. Geography has nothing to do with the popularity of boots, the survey said; they are popular in all parts of the nation.
Kansas and other areas of the Midwest and Southwest have a strong boot-wearing tradition. In these parts, boots worn by farmers and stockmen are utilitarian, prized for their durability and foot protection.
To that segment of the boot market, the cowboy tradition lives on. Those who ride horses still want heels that won't slip in a stirrup and shafts that protect their legs from scrapes and scratches.
Kansas is a boots-and-suits state, where few office dress codes forbid the wearing of cowboy boots. Comfort and fashion are the bywords of that segment of the boot market. Women also wear boots to the office, especially in seasons when denim skirts and other Western-flavored fashions are in vogue.
Richard Schonberg, a recently retired podiatrist from Wichita, has worn boots about half of the time for more than 35 years. He especially likes to wear them on his international travels. "I wore them when I walked the Great Wall of China," Mr. Schonberg says.
To those folks who insist that boots are good for their feet for one reason or another, Mr. Schonberg says phooey.
"There's no great, mystical composition about boots," he said. "Boots are just like any other kind of footwear. All that a shoe does is protect you from the elements."
However, he does recommend lower heels, commonly called walking heels, over higher ones, called riding heels, because higher heels can throw the spine off-balance.
Larry Sutherland, manager of Vanderbilt's Westernwear store in Wichita, owned a pair of boots but seldom wore them when he signed on with the store 10 years ago.
Like many neophyte boot wearers, Mr. Sutherland had chosen a pair that didn't fit properly, and because they didn't feel good, he seldom wore them.
As he began to sell cowboy boots, he realized the importance of fit, and he has been wearing boots ever since.
"Get a good fit and you'll be a boot wearer for life," Mr. Sutherland says.
There's a bit of a mystique to fitting boots that is unlike any other type of footwear. For instance, your heel is supposed to slip -- just a bit -- when you first wear a boot. That's so you won't get blisters as the leather in the heel counter is molding itself to your heel and the leather in the front part of the boot is loosening and conforming to your foot.
Merchandisers of Westernwear know all of these considerations and are accustomed to educating the new boot buyer. Their world is a sea of Tony Lamas, Noconas, Luccheses, Justins and Dan Posts, and they are as familiar with the differences among all of those popular brands as a new-car salesman is to all the models of cars he sells.
An experienced boot seller knows what brands of boots fit what kinds of foot characteristics. When he measures your foot, he gauges overall length, the length from the ball of the foot to the heel and the width of the ball of the foot.
Prices are as vast as the wide, Western sky. You can spend thousands on handmade boots. Or you can spend $30 for a pair of "fashion boots" made from man-made materials. Realistically, a pair of all-leather boots starts about $100. There are many styles and leathers available in the $100-$400 range.
Boots are unisex. Spokesmen at both Sheplers and Vanderbilt's said that fit supersedes gender when it comes to cowboy boots. Mr. Sutherland says that he has fitted men with small feet in women's boots, always telling them what he has done after they have declared the boots the best fit.
It is not uncommon for women to buy men's cowboy boots, he said, even though many boot makers duplicate many traditional styles in women's models. Again, it's a matter of fit.
Women who want something with a flair can choose from fringed models, shafts with leather insets, hand-painted shafts and other variables, most from the women's side of the boot aisle. Looking for a dramatic fashion statement? Wear your boots with a long blazer over tights or stirrup pants. Fashion cowboy boots in pink and purple and yes, white, will be seen with shorts this summer.
The fashion statements of men's boots tend to be made more in the leathers -- ostrich, lizard, elk, cowhide, goatskin and bull hide.
John Wilcox, vice president of sales promotion at Sheplers, said ropers, a traditionally plain, flat-heeled, utilitarian style of boot, have become quite popular. Originally, ropers were available in black, Wilcox said, then brown was introduced. Now, Sheplers offers ropers in 17 colors.
When warmer weather returns, you may wonder whether boots are uncomfortably warm. It's true that they don't breathe as well as some other kinds of footwear. But boot socks help to keep moisture away from the foot.
So, boots know no season.
"Boots are a lifestyle for the Western customer," Mr. Wilcox says.