Western wear is a style of clothing that innately carries American history in its fabric. From the boots to the hat, the iconic look of the way in which Western wear is worn today still holds true to the rich roots from where it began. Even in commercialized, bejeweled variants of denim jeans and designer boots, therein lies a lifestyle built from the toil and craftsmanship of 19th and 20th century cobblers, hatmakers, tailors, and cowboys.
After the Civil War, many American settlers ventured West to secure land and begin new lives. Wearing military issue Calvary boots, Wellingtons, and other kinds of low-heeled shoes, it was quickly realized that these options couldn’t hold up to long days out in the field. The first boots made to handle the toil of the working cowboy were cobbled in Coffeyville, Kansas in the early 1870s. These boots featured Cuban heels, which helped stop them from sliding through the large stirrups, as well as reinforced arches and round toes. By 1879, a predominant name emerged on the cowboy boot scene—H.J. “Joe” Justin. As the first to offer mail ordering for his boots, Justin boots quickly became a desirable option throughout western America. As these boots became increasingly popular during the 20th century due to film, literature, theater, and country music, larger companies arose to suit the increasing demand. One of these was Ariat in the 1990s, a well-known and trusted name in Western wear.
Denim Jeans, or, Waist-High Overalls
Around the same time as cowboy boots were first being cobbled, a Nevada based tailor named Jacob W. Davis asked Levi Strauss for a patent for small copper rivets to reinforce the seams and pockets of his waist-high overalls. As Davis had been producing these for miners with success, Levi Strauss saw the potential profit of the rivets and decided to partner with Davis. Though beginning their journey with hemp sail cloth for work pants, they eventually graduated to cotton serge de Nimes, better known as denim. By the 1890s, these denim pants were sold to blue-collar workers, ranchers, and cowboys alike. These too were roped into popular media avenues, creating a surge of “dude cowboys”. These men were average city-grown people with the desire to immerse themselves in “real” cowboy life. With the best quality boots, denim pants, and hats, these men would help drive the popularity of Western wear up exponentially. The pants were studded with rhinestones and sequins in the 1950s by country music stars, using the traditional singing style of cowboys as a foundation for their careers. Over time, denim pants have simply become every day wear for billions all over the globe.
Having taken notes from Mexican vaqueros—Spanish for cowboy—American and European settlers’ style began to resemble the vaquero’s get up. With their wide sombreros, tall boots, and leather chaps, everything vaqueros wore was for utility. American cowboys adopted similarly crafted apparel, with one being the hat. In 1865, hatmaker John B. Stetson re-imagined the sombrero and crafted a smaller version that was still capable of blocking the sun’s rays. His “Boss of the Plains” hat featured a hand-felt design and would influence those made thereafter for years to come. From country music and rodeos, to daily and event wear, cowboy hats now have a myriad of uses in American culture.
The history of American Western wear is one steeped in cultural history and advancement. The look and purpose of cowboy hats, boots, and denim pants informed a large portion of American society. Now, Western wear has threaded itself into almost every vein of popular fashion.