I hope you enjoy this excerpt on western fashion from the Victorian/Old West section of the Historical Research Companion to Everything of Interest to a Romance Writer:
As legendary and as romantic a figure as a medieval knight he may be, the cowboy would be embarrassed by all the fuss. He was generally not fancy, not like the Wild West shows of the 1890’s would depict, and his clothing reflecting the austerity of his life of hard work. The cowboy’s coat, trousers and vest of the 1860s was generally what was available at the general store, and there weren’t a lot of choices. Mail order became an option in the 1870s when Montgomery Ward established the first catalog in 1872.Jeans? Not so much. Although canvas or denim work trousers, such as Levi Strauss’ Levi’s were available in the 1870’s (the first Levi Strauss blue jean in 1873), wool was considered most durable for ranchers, while duck and jeaning (denim) was more popular for farmers and miners.
Belts? Another no. Not to hold up your pants anyway. The purpose of a belt was for securing pistols. In an article by G. Daniel Deweese for True West Magazine, he notes that belt loops were rare on pants until the 1920’s and goes on to say:
“Men wore suspenders, attached to waistband buttons, to keep high-waisted, loose-fitting trousers from falling to the wearer’s ankles. Ditto the adjustable cinch straps on the backs of old-time britches.”Vests were also practical in nature for holding small items, although, as noted by G. Daniel Deweese, they were partly “a Westerner’s nod to Victorian propriety.”
“The vest—that sleeveless upper body garment meant to be worn under a topcoat—was the Westerner’s nod to Victorian propriety, which dictated that gentlemen wore vests over their shirts. Indigent cowboys, well-heeled card sharps, ornery outlaws and stalwart lawmen alike might shuck the morning coat, but at least a few of them didn’t go out in public without a vest.”There were, of course, preferences for hats, boots and riding gear.
First, let’s talk about those boots. The cowboy boot evolved partly due to a change to a narrower stirrup in the mid-1870s which required higher heel to prevent the cowboy’s foot from sliding through.The higher heel also changed the posture and gait of the cowboy when walking. Deweese, in an article on the cowboy boot, notes:
“If you watch a buckaroo walk in boots with 2½-inch heels, he’ll have a slight roll in his gait. Or he’ll have an exaggerated swagger, if he’s walking like John Wayne.”A popular style of boot was the stovepipe boot, preferably custom made to measure. The stitching that we see on modern cowboy boots would not have been as ornate on the early boots, but they would have rows of stitching from top to bottom on the uppers to stiffen and strengthen the tops. By the early 1880s fancier stitching on the uppers began to appear. As noted in I See by Your Outfit by authors Tom Lindmier and Steve Mount:
“In 1885, Montgomery Ward offered for the first time “Cow Boy’s Boots” which were all calfskin boots with a fancy top, scalloped and stitched fifteen-inch leg and a two-inch heel.”For the hat, a Stetson, of course. As noted in I See by Your Outfit:
“Stetson is credited as the originator of the cowboy hat. Stetson was forced to move west from Philadelphia for his health. While residing in Colorado in the early 1860s, he conceived of the basic design for his western style hat which he later called “The Boss of the Plains.” In 1865, with his health improved, he returned to Philadelphia and began production of his western hat. The original “Boss of the Plains” had a four-inch brim and four-inch crown, was “natural-colored” and weighed two ounces. Around the base of the hat crown was a leather strap for a band. In the early 1870s, Stetson’s hats were produced in only one grade of felt (two ounces) and sold for five dollars.”
Additionally…“The Boss” was not formed in the factory. Shaping was dependent upon the individual whim of the cowboy, who provided his own style of crease in the style and roll of the brim.”Bandanas were perhaps the most utilitarian article of clothing a cowboy owned. The most obvious use of a bandana was for protection from dust or cold, but it was handy for lots of other things as well. Also from I See by Your Outfit:
“Bandanas could be used to hold a hot cup or as a rag while working around a camp fire. They were equally practical for use as a bandage or to cover the eyes of a skittish horse while it was being saddled. Basically, the bandanna was a cloth of many uses.”Horse equipment was a major investment for the cowboy, and when it came to purchasing a saddle, it is one area where the cowboy chose to buy from local saddle shops or reputable saddle making firms who were willing to customize. In addition to the saddle, riding and horse gear essentials included chaps (leggings), spurs, quirts (a short, heavy whip made of rawhide and loaded with lead shot) and ropes. The articles at the related links go into wonderful detail on these items.
Related Links:Note: Most general searches for western wear bring up numerous commercial sites. This is fine and dandy for visuals, but I decided against adding those to the link resources. Fortunately, I found sites like True West Magazine and the blog Sweethearts of the West that have some wonderful historical articles in their archives.
Articles by G. Daniel Deweese at True West Magazine:The Evolution of Western Wear: How the Cowboy Introduced America’s Only Indigenous Fashion Category –.
Head Over Heels – more on boots.Vested Interest –on vests.
This is a Hold Up – on the belt’s purpose.
***Blog posts from Sweethearts of the West: Authors Writing Romance Set under the Western Skies:
Spurs – by Sandra CrowleyThe Cowboy Uniform – by Cheri Kay Clifton
John B. Stetson – and the iconic cowboy hat of the west – by Ashley Kath-BilskyPrint Resources:
Lindmier, Tom and Mount, Steve (1996) I See by Your Outfit: Historic Cowboy Gear of the Northern Plains, High Plains Press, Wyoming