Ronald Reagan in a cowboy hat at Rancho del Cielo in 1976. Photo in public domain.
In the 1800s, clothing choice was vitally important to cowboys riding the range and on cattle drives. Proper clothing could save a cowboy's life, or that of his horse. Every item of clothing, from the boots to the hat, was carefully chosen before the cowboy left on a cattle drive or started work on the ranch.
Levi's 501 jeans. Photo by Michael Carian.
In classic Western films, however, cowboys are often seen in clothing more acceptable to the times the film was made. For instance, it is a popular misconception that cowboys wore blue jeans in the 1800s. Although Levi Strauss and his partner were hard at work on a design, blue jeans were simply not available to cowboys in the early to mid-1800s.
Levi Strauss teamed up with Jacob Davis, a Latvian tailor, in 1868 to make durable pants for miners and cowboys using canvas for fabric and rivets to hold them together. The pants were not introduced in San Francisco by Levi Strauss & Company until 1873. These pants were canvas, though, and died brown, not blue. It did not take long for the popular product to make its way around the country, but these durable pants still cost money. In the early 1800s, cowboys wore wool pants purchased in second-hand stores, discards from wealthier people in town.
American Civil War soldier Samuel Black. Photo public domain.
In the mid to late 1800s, cowboy attire was a mix of the second-hand wool pants and military uniforms from the American Civil War. They also wore the flat-heeled marching boots required by the military until they could afford to have a custom made pair. They wore heavy, gray Confederate army coats, which served them well in winter blizzards.
The cowboy uniform changed over the next ten to twenty years as clothing mass-produced in factories became more accessible and less expensive. However, cowboys continued to wear loose-fitting cotton shirts and wool pants. When the clothing wore thin it was repaired by the cook in the outfit.
According to Russell Freedman's Cowboys of the West, cowboys often stitched buckskin across the seat and down the inner thighs so the pants would not wear out from rubbing against the saddle all day long.
As mentioned before on this blog, cowboys had difficulty reaching into their pants pockets while in the saddle, so they often wore vests with pockets that were deep enough to keep items from falling out. Cowboys in the Southwest covered these vests with heavy canvas jackets to protect their bodies from thorns and cactus spines. Northern cowboys wore knee-length coats made from sheepskin or wool, depending on the type of animals they kept on their ranches.
The 1974 Western film Zandy's Bride is an interesting--and accurate--portrayal of how cowboy apparel was often designed according to the animals available on the ranch. Gene Hackman, the star of Zandy's Bride, lives on a ranch in Big Sur, California. He wears a thick wool coat in the opening scene, which is soon replaced by a heavy bear skin coat in the winter months.
Slickers, or oilskin raincoats were a necessity on the range and cowboys kept these rolled up and tied to the saddle or in the chuck wagon if they were on a cattle drive.
Perhaps one of the more well-known items of cowboy attire--besides boots and hats, or course--would be chaps. Chaps were invented by Mexican vaqueros, the original cowboys, and originally called chaparreras. They were used to protect the pants and legs from thorns and cactus spines.
An early style of chaps, called "Shotguns" were more like pants made of leather that the cowboy would step into, and these leather pants were replaced by the more popular batwing versions seen most often in Western movies--chaps that wrapped around the leg and fastened in back.
Batwing chaps, like coats, varied with the region. In the Southwest, cowboys wore chaps made of smooth leather. In the North, cowboys wore chaps made of wool, or fur, depending on the animals raised on the ranch.
The design of cowboy boots is strictly utilitarian, as well--pointed toes to slip easily into a stirrup; high heels to keep the heel in the stirrup; knee high to protect the legs from thorns and keep the dirt out of the boot; and tabs, or "mule ears" to tug the boot onto the foot. Fancy spurs attached to the boots were important to keep the horses moving, though cowboys enjoyed a variety of shapes and styles available for show.
Although current styles keep the pant leg outside of the boots, cowboys in the 1800s wore their pant legs tucked inside so they wouldn't snag on twigs and thorns. (If you haven't figured this out yet from these detailed descriptions of cowboy attire, cows have a habit of wandering into thorny areas where they are...rescued by cowboys!)
Cowboys spent as much as a month's wages to have their boots custom made. The only cowboys who wore ready made boots were either inexperienced green horns or cowboys saving their money for the real thing!
Although one might think a bandanna would be used for show, this is far from the truth. Bandannas came in a variety of bright colors to make the cowboy more visible in bad weather. They served--and still serve--many purposes. They block the hot Southwestern sun to prevent sunburn and mop up sweat from the brow. They keep the dust out of the mouth and nose during dust storms and warm the ears in cold weather. They are also used as washcloths, tourniquets, and blindfolds to lead horses out of burning barns.
Finally, the cowboy hat. Cowboy hats shield the top of the head from the heat of the sun, and the eyes from the sun's glare. The keep rain off the face. They can be used to wave to a friend from a distance, and to smack a slow horse on the rump.
Nowadays, cowboys wear hats according to what they need for their job more than fashion or to show what part of the country they come from. In the 1800s, style choice depended on region. In the Southwest, cowboy hats had tall crowns and wide brims. In the North, brims were narrow and crowns lower so they would not blow away. It was easy to identify where a cowboy came from by the style of his hat.
Although styles, colors, and patterns used on cowboy attire has changed over the years, the basic items remain the same because each item serves an important purpose in the life and work of a cowboy.
For more information on clothing see "The Boots They Wore..." on this blog.
(I am in the process of repairing damage to my blogs after they were hacked so some photos and sources may be missing. I apologize for the delay).
- Freedman, Russell. Cowboys of the West. Clarion Books. New York: 1985.