The Cowboy Look

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The Cowboy Look

The cowboy look is a fanciful construction of an ideal cowboy image. Originally, cowboy clothing provided primarily function over fashion, but through America's century-long fascination with this romantic Great Plains laborer, image has surpassed reality in what a cowboy ought to look like. With the supposed closing of the frontier at the end of the nineteenth century, the ascendancy of the Cowboy President, Theodore Roosevelt, and the growing popularity of artists such as Frederick Remington and Charley Russell, who reveled in a nostalgia for cowboy life, wearing cowboy clothes became akin to a "wearing of history" as twentieth-century Americans tried to hold onto ideals of individualism, opportunity, and adventure supposedly tied to the clothes' frontier heritage.

Of primary importance in the construction of cowboy fashion are the highly stylized cowboy boots. A mass-produced and mail-order footwear near the turn of the century, these boots protected against rough vegetation with their durable cowhide uppers and provided ease of movement in and out of stirrups with their flat soles and high wooden heels. As cowboys became heroes through the massive popularity of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and later through Hollywood films, cowboy clothing came into vogue in popular culture. Boots in particular started to assume a sense of personalized fashion as specialized bootmakers cropped up in the West, especially in Texas. These bootmakers produced boots from hides as far-ranging as ostrich, elephant, eel, or stingray. The fancy stitching, colored leather, and occasional inlaid precious stone lent these custom boots an air of fashionable individuality. Custom cowboy boots, among those wealthy enough to afford them, became a distinctive mark of an individual's flair combined with a sense of Western spirit.

But cowboy boots were only a single part of Western fashion popular throughout most of the twentieth century. Necessary fashion accouterments included denim jeans, a Western shirt (usually with designs on the shoulders), large belt buckles, and a broad-brimmed cowboy hat. This fashion remained essentially the same, barring various preferences for shirt designs and boot styles, throughout the twentieth century. Early Western film stars like William S. Hart and Tom Mix popularized the cowboy look, perpetuating the myth of the cowboy hero (always clad in a white hat) over the image of the ranch hand laborer. From the 1930s to the mid-1950s, the cowboy look found immense popularity among children. This trend coincided with the popularity of cowboy movie stars and singers Gene Autry and Roy Rogers who, according to Lonn Taylor and Ingrid Maar in The American Cowboy, acted as surrogate fathers for children whose fathers were away fighting in World War II. As television Westerns became more popular in America in the 1950s, the image of a noble and righteous cowboy fighting for justice and ideological harmony on the American frontier found a resurgence once again as America turned its attention to the Cold War.

Along with the popularity of the cowboy look from 1950s television, country music's presence in popular culture became notable; though most country music from this era sprang from the South, the fashion of the time was essentially Western and demanded cowboy boots and hats. But with the popularity of rock 'n' roll during the late 1950s and 1960s, cowboy fashion faded from the mainstream of popular culture. By the early 1970s, however, the boots, hats, tight jeans, and plaid work shirts of cowboy fashion started to appear in more urban settings. Growing from the seemingly timeless myth of the cowboy loner—epitomized in 1902 by Owen Wister's The Virginian —, the cowboy look now hit city streets less as a costume and more as a fashion statement. This look culminated with the 1980 release of Urban Cowboy, starring John Travolta as an unlikely cowboy figure who finds romance and country dancing in late 1970s Texas honky tonks.

The cowboy look also benefitted from the resurgence in the popularity of country music music between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s. Without any major changes in the foundations, the cowboy look became the Western look, incorporating into the basic clothes some Hollywood glitz and rhinestones, Southwestern Hispanic and Native American styles such as silver and turquoise, and a new kind of homegrown, rural sensibility. The jeans became tighter, the shirts louder, and hats took on the personalized importance of boots. As country music became more popular, huge Western clothing super-stores opened throughout America dedicated solely to supplying the fashion needs of country music's (and country dancing's) new devotees.

The icon of Western fashion could no longer be found in movies. Instead, country music stars such as George Strait or Reba McEntire presented the measure for the new cowboy look. The new cowboy look did not focus on the Western hero, the knight in the white hat so popular in the early part of the century, but rather was aimed at the American worker who gets duded-up to play on the weekend. This new cowboy look was used to sell fishing equipment and especially pick-up trucks to people aspiring toward country or Western lifestyles. Though this country look still appeared as a "wearing of history," its devotees found in this new fashion a distillation of the American work ethic (that allowed for outlets on Friday and Saturday nights) that had supposedly grown from a country ranching and farming lifestyle. The cowboy look no longer represented the hero, but the American rural laborer, albeit in an overly sanitized fashion. Like the popular country music that spurred this fashion trend, the cowboy look now affected rural authenticity over urban pretensions, valued family and the honor of wage labor, and, like its earlier permutations, elevated American history and culture over any other traditions.

—Dan Moos

Further Reading:

Beard, Tyler. The Cowboy Boot Book. Layton, Utah, Gibbs Smith, 1992.

Savage, William W., Jr., The Cowboy Hero: His Image in American History and Culture. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.

Taylor, Lonn, and Ingrid Maar. The American Cowboy. New York, Harper and Row, 1983.