A History of the Wild West Wardrobe

Posted on

To coincide with the British Film Institute's Ride Lonesome series - a whole month dedicated to some of the best western films from the 1950s - we've taken a step (or two) back in time to look at the wardrobe in the Wild West to talk you through how cowboys and girls dressed in days gone by and give you a little bit of inspo!


Words by Olivia Girling

Stay tuned with upcoming BFI events and releases Website | Instagram | Twitter

When we think of cowboys, we generally think of the stereotypical American West cattle ranger of the late nineteenth century with his Stetson and lasso, and although that's a relatively accurate assumption, there was (and still is) a lot more to the traditional cowboy/girl aesthetic; with practicality at the forefront of their minds. Everything the cowboys wore -- and still wear -- has a purpose. Chaps, spurs, even denim; it was all chosen for a reason. Have a read below and maybe you'll find out something you didn't know before! Time to get your Western style on!

Head

Back in the early days of the old west, cowboys didn't opt for a Stetson, as you might have assumed, but rather a bowler hat as it was less likely to blow off as they were riding at speed. However, the Union Calvary's extensive use of the Stetson in the 1870s increased its popularity and it quickly became a staple amongst cowmen. With stampede strings made of leather or even horsehair attached to either side to prevent the hats from blowing off in the strong wind.

Although sometimes depicted as wearing exaggerated white ten-gallon hats, these were virtually never worn by real cowboys! Rather, just those in the movies - if historical gunslingers such as Wild Bill were to wear a huge white hat, it would have made him quite an easy target! Ultimately, this style was saved for more commercialised instances, such as movie stars or musicians in the American West.

Shoulders

Traditionally made from either denim or tartan, the cowboy shirts that we have come to know over the decades follow a very distinctive style; long sleeves, elaborately decorated panels and a stylized yoke (the piece of fabric around the shoulders and neck which add support to the garment). In more recent years, the addition of snap pockets and (a lot of) fringing have become quite common, with the most elaborate examples being worn by movie cowboys such as Roy Rogers.

The fact that the shirts are so embroidered is not just for aesthetic purposes - it was initially so cowboys who were participating in rodeos could be easily recognised by spectators as they were being flung across the ring! Buffalo Bill's famous travelling Wild West shows were a great example of the fashion in the American West, with Bill himself regularly sporting as much fringing as possible.

As was the case with most garments in the American West during the late nineteenth century, both male and female jackets featured a lot of fringing; Annie Oakley was regularly seen in a fringed jacket when she was participating in Buffalo Bill's Wild West as a sharpshooter.

Following the Civil War of 1861-65, bolero jackets became really popular among cowgirls, sometimes with a design imitating the piebald colouring of a cow, although predominantly in a colour matching their skirt or dress.

Clint Eastwood's stint as the Man with No Name greatly raised the popularity of ponchos amongst cowboy communities in the 1960s, although it did not necessarily stick and, like the ten gallon hat, became a stereotype of the American West that is not entirely accurate.

From a more formal point of view, this is where the most elaborate western jackets could be found - excessive embroidery and rhinestone detailing on such garments as the famous Nudie Suit became increasingly popular among country and western singers including Porter Wagoner and, you guessed it, Elvis. This completely over the top western style is the origin of the phrase rhinestone cowboy and was everywhere in the commercialised American western world!

Knees

During the early nineteenth century, trousers in the American West were traditionally made of wool, and then during the summer months this was swapped to canvas. However, this changed completely following the Gold Rush of the 1840s in which miners began to wear denim overalls for their durability. Levi Strauss took this and improved upon it to create a design which ranchers and cowboys had adopted by the early 1870s, and they continue to be one of the most popular trouser styles among cowmen today.

Alongside Levi's, cowboys have always been associated with chaps; made of loads of materials including leather or animal hides still with their hair (known as woollies), these would protect the ranchers' legs from cacti as they walked among the plains with their herds. Chaps were first seen in about 1887 and continue to be a big part of the cowboy outfit aesthetic today.

In terms of womenswear, towards the end of the nineteenth century, women tended to wear knee-length prairie skirts, red gingham dresses or suede fringed skirts that derived from Native American dress. However, following the years after World War II, many women in the American West began to wear jeans like their male counterparts.

Toes

As soon as someone says cowboy, the first thought that crosses many a mind is the famous cowboy boot, however, this was not initially the most popular footwear in the area. In fact, it was Wellington boots that were worn the most among cowboy communities until the 1860s. Following this, the trend moved towards a boot with a Cuban heel, a round to pointed toe and a high shaft, forming what we now consider the traditional cowboy boot.

Although normally made from cowhide leather, some boots are known to be made of incredibly exotic animal skins including alligator, buffalo, elk and even ostrich! There are rarely laces on the boots to prevent them catching in the stirrups whilst horseback riding, and sometimes feature spurs attached to the back of the heel of each boot in order to cue their horses.

DIY

Creating your own American West inspired look is easier than you think! All you need to start off with is a button-down shirt and jeans, and then you can go to town with your accessories. Add a colonel or bolo tie for a subtle cowboy look, or go all out with the whole package - fringing on everything, spurs on your boots, and an oversized Stetson. Why not?!!