You don’t have to look to far to find out the origins of western apparel, whether you listen to tales of the wild west, watching those old cowboy films or listening to the stars of country music. Western wear derives its name from a unique style of the clothes worn by men and women in the 19th-century American West. It has undergone many changes since the early days of the Wild West with its open ranges, wagon trains, cattle drives, and notorious outlaws. The apparel worn by legends of the west such as Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, and Wild Bill Hickock is decidedly different from most of today’s western fashions, but it was this era that laid the foundations to the western fashion we know and wear today. The cowboy way was a way of life throughout the American west up until the early 1900s.
Western apparel got started along with those who were known as cowboys after the American Civil War. Ranchers in Texas had to find a market for their large excess stock of cattle. Meanwhile, on the east coast beef was in short supply. Thus, the ranchers drove their cattle north to the nearest railroads, for example Fort Worth, which became a major shipping point for livestock in 1876. This prompted plans in 1887 for the construction of the Union Stockyards about two and one half miles north of the Tarrant County Courthouse. It went into full operation about 1889.
Mexican vaqueros and Americans fleeing the law also made up a large number of cowboys roaming the untamed west. The attire of these early cowboys was usually very plain and simple. Full length trousers made of canvas were tucked inside their cowboy boots, allowing them to ride several rough trails before their jeans wore out. Shirts of the early cowboy were usually cotton or wool, sometimes with simple pin striping, and had no collar. These shirts pulled over their heads with buttons running only partially down the front of the shirt. A bandana was worn to protect the neck of the cowboy from the elements while riding the trail, which was also used as a mask in dust storms as well as outlaws using them as a mask during bank raids and hold ups. A cowboy’s hat was very practical and used for everything from protecting them from the sun, to providing them with something to drink out of when fresh water could be found. This is how, allegedly, the name the “Ten Gallon Hat” was born because of its ability to hold water.
The early days of Hollywood revived the old west spirit, the cowboy way of life, and sparked new interest in western wear across the nation. Gene Autry, John Wayne, and Roy Rogers lit up cinema screens and those of a certain generation will never forget our television screens filled popular western series such as Rawhide with Rowdy Yates (Clint Eastwood), Gunsmoke with Dennis Weaver as Chester and Bonanza with Little Joe (Michael Landon) all dressed in western apparel.
Western wear became prominent in pop culture during the 1960’s with even the Beatles wearing cowboy boots. Western apparel popularised by this era included cowboy hats, fashionable cowboy boots and jeans, as well as collared shirts featuring designs and patterns.
Some of most articulate western wear is the custom work created by rodeo tailors such as Nudie Cohn and Manuel, which is characterised by elaborate embroidery and rhinestone decoration. This type of western wear, popularised by country music performers, is the origin of the phrase rhinestone cowboy.
Nashville’s country music scene with has kept up the interest in the western fashion industry and the western way of life, and its artists, with such country stars as Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw and Dwight Yokam all sporting cowboy hats, cowboy boots and clothing’ have heavily influenced the western wear of today. Sand-blasted jeans, distressed leather, and ultra-casual dress have become the frontier in modern western apparel; which has become popular with line dancing, western riding, and western fashion together with country music fans all over the world. Classic western wear is still commonplace in American culture.
Some western companies focus on maintaining cowboy authenticity in their events, to support re-enactments, staged events, film and theatre. Western wear ranges from accurate historical reproductions of pioneer, mountain man, Civil War, cowboy and Mexican vaquero clothing to the stylised garments for the show business world.