HOW THE WEST WAS WORN:
Very few items of clothing have the power to remain relevant over a century, but those that do have a romanticism and mystique about them – plus, the touch of Hollywood never hurts.
Western shirts are definitively one of those items. Born of the Wild West in the earliest part of the 19th century, (after it was won, but whilst it was still wild), the western shirt has permeated almost every area of fashion since, and become an established addition to many wardrobes.
Though the western shirt is synonymous with the archetypal image of the American cowboy, its origins belong to the meeting of cultures the frontier territories provided; the history of the shirt being the history of the American west itself, and early western settlers mixing with the native population and Mexican cattle herders. Long before there were ‘American’ cowboys there were vaqueros: Spanish cattlemen, the term dating back to the 16th century, when Spanish colonisers arrived in the Americas. These early settlers brought cattle and ranching with them from the Spanish plains, and with it the traditions and attire linked to working them. Though the Spanish rule over Mexico ended in 1821, the influence of Spain remained, as did the Vaqueros' way of life.
On a side note: the word Vaqueros, pronounced B’akero is where the term Buckaroo comes from, as well as now being the Spanish term for jeans.
The doctrine of 'Manifest Destiny' within the United States of the 1800s justified its expansion at all costs; believing the growth to be both divine and inevitable. In 1845 the United states annexed Texas, beginning the Mexican-American War which lasted from 1846-1848, until the dispute was resolved in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This treaty ended the war ceding huge swathes of land which had previously been part of Mexico to the United States for the price of $15,000,000. This pivotal moment and expansion of the United States into this new territory changed the Americas forever, and the untamed 'West' full of riches and promise became legend.
In this new land of the South West, which included California, Americans made their way to discover fortune in the gold rush of the 1850s or to claim 160 acres of new land in the homesteaders act of the 1860s. The spread of American colonials into what was previously Mexican territory meant the South West became a melting pot, where the Vaqueros who had previously worked the land and tended cattle trained the new settlers in the way of ranch life and cattle driving.
As America expanded, the fast development of the railroad brought a lifeline to the outlying settlements and those who forged a new life in them: establishing a connection to the rest of America and allowing ‘civilisation’ to slowly spread to the west. With this, fabrics such as cotton and wool became more readily available for local tailors and craftsmen to outfit the new inhabitants of what could be an inhospitable new land.
Clothing had to be practical and hard-wearing for the climate. Native American's wore leather buckskin capes and smocks, tasselled and decorated with embroidery; early western fur trappers, hunters and explorers would often be seen wearing these trading with and living alongside the natives. Vaqueros tended to wear light cotton or silk shirts, sometimes pleated and embroidered, similar to Guayaberas. These lightweight shirts featured a yoke back panel and pocketed front, serving as a building block for the shirt we now know; these would be accessorised with a large scarf, or poncho draped around the shoulders for protection. Cut trim, and generally long in the body, the long tails were adopted to keep the shirt tucked in while on horseback, and cut trim to reduce the chance of catching on undergrowth. The shoulder yoke, an immediate identifier of a western shirt, was derived from wooden yokes worn by oxen and horses, and added support as well as an extra layer of fabric saddled across the shoulders protecting from the sun and elements as well as adding extra durability.
Though these were working shirts, designed for labouring in without falling apart too quickly, the rise of the Rodeo and international popularity of the vaudevillian Wild West shows would influence the design and style of western shirts forever, influencing the flair and details.
In the 1880s, after the Mexican-American war, with stories of bravery, valour and heroic battles, Buffalo Bill was creating his touring Wild West shows. These brought the rope-skills and showmanship of the Vaqueros and those American cowboys who had adopted them to the general public. These vaudevillian shows told stories of how the west was won and brought the cowboy out of the range and into the mainstream, giving the public a glimpse into the world of the Wild West, albeit with the razzle-dazzle of a staging production.
The shows allowed the audience to root for their favourite showman. For this, the cowboys borrowed another trick from the Vaqueros, who in turn were influenced by the bullfighters of Spain and their brightly coloured and embroidered costumes: the ‘Traje de luces’ – suit of lights. Emblazoned with gold thread and sequins, the traje de luces made the matador stand out in the arena, each one coloured and designed specifically for the performer. Buffalo Bill’s riders would wear brightly coloured shirts and ‘Bolero’ jackets, mimicking the Mexican bullfighter’s attire. This would filter through to rodeo shows, performers adorning silk and satin shirts with multi-coloured panels across the shoulder yoke and cuffs; floral patterns embroidered on the collar, chest and back; cuffs elongated, and extravagantly attached to the sleeve; as well as a multitude of buttons added for posterity.
Buffalo Bill's shows toured the world, influencing popular culture wherever they played, and the perception of America and Americans. The touring shows displayed a highly romanticised and exaggerated version of the Wild West, outside of the confines and social constructs of civilised Western society; a rough'n'ready existence, full of adventure and daring-do, where men were heroic, strong figures; but so were the women too. The white Cowboy showman became the image of America to the rest of the world, and began to redefine men in the image of the cowboy; gradually reshaping societies expectations of the genteel sophisticate city-slicker into a rougher more down to earth go-getter.
Such a love was there for the Wild West as the American identity, that by the end of the 18th century Dude-Ranches, or Guest Ranches began to appear, catering for those from the city who wanted a taste of what life had been like, albeit through rose-tinted spectacles. As a tourist industry, the West became a playground to those who wanted to play-at-cowboys. Ranches which used to drive cattle with free range of the plaines became a little more domesticated, giving the customers what they wanted: the full-Western experience, carefully edited and adjusted to suit a public fed on the rodeo shows and nostalgia. Ranch owners began dressing as the paying public expected them to, perpetuating the rodeo image of the cowboy and Wild West of a bygone age.
By the 1930s the Dude Ranch business was an industry; visitors could get kitted-out and purchase Western gear with all the trims and trappings in dry-good stores curated for the consumer, and Western wear began to be produced for the growing market. 'Rodeo Tailors' such as Nathan Turk, Rodeo Ben and Nudie Cohen who had previously made shirts exclusively for rodeo riders, country singers and for film, set-up business producing bespoke Western shirts for fashion, harnessing the stylised elements of Western design. Each of these tailors would bring their own influences with them; drawing from their own diverse ethnic backgrounds.
Nathan Turk and Rodeo Ben both immigrated to the United States from Poland, Nudie Cohen from Ukraine; their designs would be influenced by the beautifully embroidered and embellished pictorial motifs found within national dress of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Austria and of course Poland & Ukraine. Musicians and movie stars would be kitted out by these highly influential tailors as well as those who wanted to look the part on the Dude Ranch and around town; fashion forming around and adopting Western style into the mainstream for the first time.
Actors such as Buck Jones, Bill Hart and Tom Mix, who were the biggest starts of the 1920s silent Westerns would shape the on-screen costume of cowboys. Tom Mix, famous for his flamboyant Western style on and off screen, was influenced by the Wild West & Rodeo shows; wearing bright colours and patterns, he would hand embroider his own shirts with floral designs. Though these early Westerns were decidedly camp by todays standards, they would influence the style of 1930s Hollywood as it began to turn its lens toward the Wild West in earnest, beginning the "Gold Age of Westerns", captivating the audience's fascination with the Wild West for the next three decades.
Bigger brands started to pay attention to the trend towards Western style, and companies such as Levi's, Pendleton and Sear's would start to create Western-inspired 'sports' shirts in wools and gabardines. Levi's would reinvent themselves in the 1930s adopting the cowboy as their company symbol. Their 1938 catalogue titled 'Dude Ranch Duds' saw the company move away from wholesaling simply workwear and dry-goods to selling clothing to a fashion consumer. Out of this would come some of the most iconic advertising from Levi's and an identity which would secure the company as the American outfitter, though the innovation and popularity of Western shirts is owed to many others.
The War years would reshape the world in too may ways to mention, though, in context of Western wear, it would level fashion and redefine clothing forever. The post-war years allowed less-formal attire to be normalised and accepted. The America which emerged from WWII was a very different place from the downtrodden, Great Depression weary country which had entered.
The post-war years would see a boom in Western wear popularity as well as production and manufacturing. Rationing of materials ended with the war, but the infrastructure and methods for mass production remained in place. America was now a nation of industry and innovation looking towards the future, holding whole-heartedly on to its own cultural history. Companies began to produce Western wear for a mass-market, and recruit rodeo tailors to design Western apparel, H Bar C bringing in Nudie Cohen and Wrangler employing Rodeo Ben using their name to bring authenticity to the brands.
In 1946 Jack A. Weil founded Rockmount Ranch Wear in a small shop in Denver, Colorado. Having worked for Miller Stockman, a Western wholesale catalogue, his aim was to create a distinctive Western look and individual identity for the region; which in the spirit of America could be marketed and sold, not only to cowboys and Dude Ranch tourists, but back to America as a whole. For this, he would draw from the Rodeo designs of old, and the work of the bespoke rodeo tailors, updating and modernising them with new materials and production methods for a mass-market using his background in marketing and manufacturing.
Jack had nurtured an idea of using snap buttons since just before the war when, on a visit to San Francisco in 1938, he saw a Chinese tailor using ‘glove-snaps’ on the front placket of a shirt. Always looking to innovate, Jack knew that the use of these snaps would give his product two major advantages: rather than buttons, if the shirt were to get caught on a branch or, heaven forbid, a steer-horn, the shirt front would pop-open, releasing the cowboy from what had entangled him, potentially even saving his life. The other was, cowboys being the rough-and-ready types that they are, might be disinclined to re-sew a loose button.
Textiles and hardware had been strictly limited for war production, so, in 1946, with the start of his new business, he headed to New York to solicit the help of the Scovill Manufacturing Company, situated in the Chrysler Building. At that time, and after direct use throughout the war for military application, Scovill was producing the highest quality snaps available, and to Jack they were the obvious choice to make his concept a reality. It quickly became obvious however, that not everyone shared his vision.
As the story has it, after a meeting with a young sales rep at Scovill, Jack A. Weil was being shown the door after unsuccessfully convincing him of the potential application for their products on his Western shirts. With all lost, in an all-or-nothing last-ditch attempt, he knew he needed to make an impact and get in front of a more senior employee. Hollering at the top of his lungs “If I bought these Scovill snaps and paid for them and ate them like cereal, then it’s nobody’s business but my own!” did the trick, a manager emerged from an office within earshot, aroused by the commotion and the rest, as they say, is history.
Jack A. Weil would modernise the Western shirt market like no other, mass producing styles and designs adding his own unique stamps along the way. Though there is some contention to whether the Western snap button was solely his invention, the application and popularity can certainly be attributed to him. It's important to note that Levi's first snap button shirt would not appear until 1959. Along with the snap buttons Jack also trademarked the saw tooth pocket and diamond snap shaped button.
The 1950s were truly the decade of the cowboy and the Western. The cowboy permeated all parts of popular culture and Western wear fully adopted into the mainstream. Country singers would begin to give-way to rock'n'roll and the cowboy motion picture was king. Baby-boomers around the world were growing up surrounded cowboys and Americana, the heroes on the big screen, and the small screen ingrained into their childhoods. The earliest of Rock'n'roll musicians such as Elvis Presley would be kitted out in western-wear and country singers like Johnny Cash bringing a new edge to the look, influencing the style and music of the 1960s. As the suits of the 60s bands gave way to denim, leather jackets and hippie culture, casual clothing and the western shirt in particular became a signifier of counterculture cool and antiestablishment ideals. Since the 1960s, the appropriation of western style has been ever-present though-out the music, movie and fashion scenes. From high street to catwalk most wardrobes have been touched by western wear in some manner, and if this brief history of western shirts says anything about the item, it's that you don't have to be a cowboy to wear one, just have a touch of flair and a romanticism for the Wild West.