Southwest Sampler, Summer 1991
The Lowdown on Cowboy Clothing
By Debra Anton
Reprint in part:
What did the real cowboy look like? His yoked chambray shirt shielded his shoulders from the blazing sun. Worn, patched jeans and scuffed, pointy boots told tales of riding the sagebrush-studded range. Under a dirty hat rode just a cowboy, neither villain no hero, although Hollywood would have us think differently.
The first thing you should know is that the cowboys always ride off into the sunset. They rarely leave at daybreak or when the moon glows coldly in the sky. An there’s a good reason for this. When the sun is as red as a branding iron and strains to cast its last rays across the landscape, the leathered profile of the cowboy is set off in high relief. His hard hands hold the bridle with a sure grip, and his feet are set firmly in the stirrups. At this point, of course the music swells and the closing credits read “The End.”
This is the image that Hollywood has given us of the cowboy: resolute and independent. In our mind, these qualities are inseparable from the uniform he wears. Ten-gallon hat. Yoked shirt. Well-worn jeans. High-heeled, silver-tipped boots.
Hollywood added a generous dollop of glitter when it portrayed the cowhand. In movies, good guys wear white hats and bad guys wear black. The shirts that are ripped in barroom brawls are often made of satin. And the ever-present boots? Well, the heels are so high that even John Wayne was forced to wiggle when he walked.
The real-life cowboy did not spend as much time dressing in the morning as he did learning to tie a rope. While he was no fashion plate, he did have a little of the peacock in him. Yes, his clothes were functional and appropriate, but they were just flashy enough to catch the eye of a Western miss.
“Cowboys were the most flamboyant, self-promoting group in history. They were aware of their image, and they did everything imaginable to promote it,” says Larry Bitterman, president of the Old Frontier Clothing Company. His 16-page catalogue features cowboy couture that is light years away from the satin-and-fringed garb of singling cowboys. Working cowboys and weekend cowboys are sporting Bitterman’s authentic gear.
Boots and hats, the two most visible elements of that gear, evolved from the cowboy’s climate and work. Bitterman acknowledges the popularity of both hats and boots but has noticed a subtle difference in the people who buy them.
“Almost anyone will wear cowboy boots, even people who aren’t particularly interested in cowboys or the West. Wearing boots has gotten to be a fashion statement. But when a guy puts on a cowboy hat, he’s making a statement about who he is and the way he sees the world,” Bitterman says.