Few images are more iconic of the United States than the lone cowboy working out on the horizon against the backdrop of a lazily setting golden sun. The frontier culture that dominated the United States for centuries has left an indelible mark in the collective unconscious of millions despite the Old West receding into the depths of history for over a century.
However, what made cowboys and cowgirls fashion icons that continue to influence popular fashion long after their disappearance? To understand what constitutes the dress of a cowboy, you have to understand there are many interpretations of the Old West. Are you dabbling with the singing cowboy tradition of Roy Rogers? This interpretation of the Old West is a jolly affair, complete with bright colors and pristine white hats. If you are more interested in the more grounded westerns of the 1960s and 1970s featuring an aging John Wayne and an up and coming Clint Eastwood? How about the modern day dirty and gritty style where the occupants of the Old West are whiskey soaked rakes caked in filth?
The fashion sense of the Old West was predicated on practicality. What worked was in and what didn’t was out. This explains the affinity for wide brimmed hats that provided protection in the hot sun of the American Southwest. Cloth that could stand the test of time was essential as the rough conditions would tear gentle fabrics, like linen and silk, to pieces. Denim was a necessity because it was durable and cheap to produce.
Cowboy and cowgirl clothing was also influenced by neighboring Mexico, giving birth to the sombrero-esque ten gallon hat and making the poncho an important all weather tool. Bandanas and scarves were also important to guard exposed skin against damaging sunlight. In a way, the fashion ethos of the Old West wasn’t far off from the design of traditional Arab clothing, with durable layers of clothing protecting the skin against the ever present sun.
Ultimately, what makes the cowboy and cowgirl stand out as an American institution isn’t so much their sense of fashion, it’s what they represent. The sense of individuality and self reliance that cowboys and cowgirls had made them far more iconic than leather boots and denim jeans.