Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Cowboy Duds


"I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy." This line was forever stamped in our consciousness of the old west cowboy when it became a song lyric in The Streets of Laredo. But exactly what was it about those cowboy duds that made the man wearing them identifiable on sight?

Since the cowboy worked with cattle and horses in some of the wildest terrain in the west, by necessity his clothing had to be durable. A cowboy’s clothing could also tell a lot about where he hailed from and the job he performed.

Stetson Champie
Hats gave a big clue to a rider’s origin. In the north, the brims were narrow and the crowns low. But just like a jackrabbit’s ears, the farther south you went, the bigger they became to shade their owners from the sun. In a previous post, Lauri Robinson gave us some great information about the Stetson and the various ways they are creased and what the creases signify. Stetsons came in a variety of styles, including the Dakota, Calgary, Champie (my fave), and the Ten-gallon. A common misconception about the Ten-gallon hat is that it referred to liquid measure. It didn’t. In Spanish, the word "gallon" refers to the band on a hat. The more gallons it had, the more expensive it was. Cowboys eventually started calling any hat that was large and expensive a Ten-gallon. Besides protecting him from the sun and rain, a cowboy’s hat had other uses. He could carry water in it or use it to fan a fire to life. If need be, he could use it as a whip to urge his horse to a faster run. On occasion, he might even stuff the crown with dried grass and use it as a pillow.


A bandana, also known as a wipe or rag, was just as necessary as a hat. They usually came in blue or red and were worn loosely around the neck. When the weather turned frigid, a bandana could be pulled up over a cowboy’s nose to prevent frostbite. It also served as a mask when a man pulled drag duty and had to ride behind the dusty herd. A bandana was long enough to be draped over the crown of a cowboy’s hat and tied under his chin to prevent the hat flying off in a high wind. This also protected his ears from frostbite if he got caught out in a blue norther. And just like his hat, a cowboy’s bandana had other uses and was sometimes brought into service as a potholder, towel, or bandage. If the only available water was muddy, the bandana could be used to filter it for drinking. In a pinch, the bandana probably had a couple of other uses, too, but I’d rather not mention those and put you off your feed this early in the day.

Shirts were always long-sleeved and most often were the pullover type with a three or four button placket on the front opening. See the young cowboy in the photo; he’s wearing a pullover, probably made of wool. Fabrics used were some variety of cotton or wool, depending on the climate. Let’s not forget gloves and leather cuffs, which fastened around the lower arm and extended down to cover the wrists. These were necessary to protect against rope burns or injuries from barbed wire and sharp animal hoofs, plus they saved wear and tear on shirt sleeves.

Contrary to popular culture, the most common pants worn by cowboys in the old west were made of heavy wool, not denim. As I mentioned before, the clothing had to be durable and wool lasted longer than other materials. Levi Strauss didn’t perfect his denim jeans until 1873, and I imagine it took quite some time after that for them to become readily available in dry goods stores throughout the west. So if you have your cowboy set in any time period prior to that, he’d most likely have worn wool or some other material.


Can you imagine wearing that hot, scratchy wool from waist to ankle? I can’t. Which brings me to the reason most cowboys wore their unmentionables year round. Since the great westward migration began after the Civil War, that’s where I’ll begin—with the union suit. The first union suit was patented in 1868 as "emancipation union under flannel." Normally, they were red flannel with full-length arms and legs. The front buttoned up from groin to neck. There was a flap in back that unbuttoned for easy access in the outhouse. After a time (don’t have an exact date) the union suit gave way to long johns, which were very similar to the two-piece suit of long underwear we’re familiar with today. Just fyi, it wasn’t unusual for men who didn’t have an easy means of doing laundry to wear their long johns for an entire summer or winter between washings. How romantic is that!

Back side of Batwing Chaps

As if two layers of garments weren’t hot and sweaty enough for our cowboy, let’s add a pair of leather chaps to his outfit. Chaps were necessary to save wear and tear on precious clothing. Plus they offered some protection from cactus thickets, thorny bushes, barbed wire, and even an occasional love nip from his best friend, his horse. Chaps came in three basic styles: shotguns, batwings, and woolies. Shotgun chaps were slim and close fitting and had to be pulled up the legs, over the pants. Sometimes awkward because the boots and spurs had to be removed to get them on. Northern cowboys preferred woolies for extra warmth. They were most often made from sheep hide with the long wool left on. For pure comfort and convenience, most cowboys preferred batwing chaps. They were looser and fastened around the legs, which didn’t require removing footwear. They also allowed more air to flow in, which was essential on the sun-scorched ranges of the southwest.

Last, but not least, no cowboy would be caught dead without his boots. Back in our cowboy’s day, a pair of boots cost between $10 and $25, depending on how much fancy stitching he wanted and the quality of the leather. Most cowboys only owned one pair, and they held onto that one pair as long as possible and resisted buying new ones. If you’ve ever worn a new pair of cowboy boots, you can sympathize. When new boots were required, they sometimes soaked them in water before putting them on the first time so they would conform to the shape of their feet. Toes were pointed for ease in and out of the stirrups. The heels were high and slanted for gripping the stirrups. The slanted heels were also good for gripping the ground when a cowhand had a rank steer on the other end of his rope. The leather loops, called mule ears, at the tops of the shafts were used to pull the boots onto the feet. No pair of cowboy boots would be complete without spurs, and they came in too many shapes and sizes for me to elaborate on in this post. A cowboy who had a care for his horse filed down the tips of the spur rowels so they wouldn’t damage the animal’s skin. And if a cowboy wanted an extra jingle in his step when he went to town, he added a pair of jinglebobs to the end of the shank.

Ah, those cowpokes and their jinglebobs. Puts a smile on my face every time. :)

Happy reading and writing!
Devon


Resources for cowboy clothing in the Old West:

The Book of the American West –Section 6, Cowboys and Horses of the American West by Ramon F. Adams 
How the West Was Worn by Chris Enss 
Bandannas, Chaps, and Ten-Gallon Hats by Bobbie Kalman

33 comments:

Kathleen said...

Thanks for busting some myths and explaining other things about cowboy duds, Devon! Denim-wearing cowboys bother me every time I run across them prior to about 1880. (And after that, denim-clad cowboys bother me for an entirely different reason. ;-) )

Lyn Horner said...

Devon, this is another keeper! Terrific details like you've given here can take hours to find when researching. Thanks a bunch. Love those jinglebobs!

Devon Matthews said...

So glad you enjoyed the post, Kathleen! I'm right there with you on the denim. Hmm, maybe I should have included a line or two about the jeans not having any zippers. Oh, well. Thanks for stopping by! :)

Devon Matthews said...

Lyn, there's so much ground to cover, I ended up with a very condensed "how to dress your cowboy." LOL! So glad if the info was helpful. Thanks for commenting, my friend. :)

Alethea Williams said...

Most interesting post for Western writers and readers. Thanks for condensing all this information on cowboy clothing.

Paty Jager said...

As usual, great information, Devon!

Taryn Raye said...

Jinglebobs...hehehehe...

Definitely good information to have if you're writing cowboys.

Devon Matthews said...

Hi Alethea! Thanks so much for joining us and your comment is much appreciated. :)

Devon Matthews said...

Thanks, Paty! :)

Devon Matthews said...

Taryn, I know. ;) I love it! Thanks for coming over and commenting.

Ginger Simpson said...

What a wonderful post. I was one who used...notice past tense...denims when I shouldn't have, but I've learned that lesson, but it's great you've pointed it out for those like me who just assumed. You know what they say about doing that? *lol* I'm glad the posts don't go away because this just added to valuable wealth of research you gals do and share here. Loved it!

MK said...

Great post Devon! I had to do this same research for the book I'm working on right now and found some of it interesting. Especially bandanas being called rags. Thanks for sharing!

mesadallas said...

I've never soaked a new pair of boots in water but I do have one dandy trick for getting a new pair of boots to break in and conform to my foot. I take a spray bottle and fil it with 1/2 water and the other 1/2 rubbing alcohol. I then spray the inside of the boots until they are good and saturated and then put them on for the day. It takes a couple of hours for them to dry out but as they do they stretch to conform to my foot. Depending on the boot I sometimes have to repeat the procedure once or twice but this really works! I've also done it with a few pairs of leather pumps that were too tight.

Cheri said...

Devon, add me to the long list of happy readers here! Well-written informative post. Having read you book, wouldn't have expected anything else!

Ellen O’Connell said...

It is another great post, Devon, and the photo of the young cowboy is particularly evocative. As an additional tidbit - the main reason for the high heel on a cowboy boot that I always had impressed on me was to make sure the boot couldn't slip through the stirrup in a fall hanging the rider in the saddle in a potentially fatal way.

Nowadays you see people riding in tennis shoes (while of course wearing a helmet), but when I was a girl, you weren't allowed on a horse unless you were wearing boots with a distinct heel - and I rode English style.

I'm guilty of putting Matt Slade in Sing My Name in Levi Strauss trousers in 1874, but I did it knowing it was at least possible.

Devon Matthews said...

Ginger, I'm shocked! LOL! Just kidding. I hope the post is helpful, as that's what I intended. I'm with you on the wealth of information shared here. I learn something every time one of you ladies blog. Thanks!

Devon Matthews said...

Hi MK! Thanks for stopping by. Best of luck with the book in progress. Certain areas of research always interest me more than others, and this is one area I've always found entertaining. :)

Devon Matthews said...

Hi Mesa! Thanks for sharing your boot tip. I've got a pair of boots in my closet that I wore exactly once. They killed my feet and I was so relieved to get home and get them off. Never put them on again. I'm going to try your spray bottle trick and see if it helps. It would be a shame for a good pair of boots to go to waste. Good to see you here! :)

Devon Matthews said...

Well, shucks, Cheri. Thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. :)

Devon Matthews said...

Hi Ellen! It is a nice portrait of a young cowboy. I chose it because he's wearing the classic cowboy outfit, even the three-button placket shirt. But you'll notice, he's not wearing cowboy boots. His boots are lace ups.

I tried riding in regular street shoes one time years ago. My horse took a small leap over a log and I lost a stirrup first thing. Those slanted heels truly do serve a purpose.

At least you didn't have Matt wearing Levi's before they were even invented, so it could have happened. ;) Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Alison E. Bruce said...

I remember looking up the history of denim before considering using it in Under A Texas Star. I remember the research but can't remember whether or not I used it.

Alison E. Bruce said...

This is what I love about this blog: good research and handy tips we can use here and now. I hate wearing in new shoes. Now I know what to do.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Devon, thanks for a great pot. Many of the men in my part of Texas wear a Stetson and boots, with varying styles of dress between the two. During rainy weather, ranchers hurry to town to do errands, and it's not impossible to see a man in batwing chaps. Most weat jeans, though, and some have western cut dress pants for Sunday.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Great blog, Devon! But it does make it a bit difficult to write a romantic cowboy!

Devon Matthews said...

Alison, I'm downright picky about my footwear these days. Too old to suffer breaking in uncomfortable shoes, so I only get the ones that feel good from the get-go. But I am going to try Mesadallas's tip on those boots in my closet. Thanks for stopping by! :)

Devon Matthews said...

Caroline, there's nothing sexier than a man in western wear, imo. After living in Texas, I miss seeing that.Thanks for coming by and commenting. :)

Devon Matthews said...

Hi Lisabet! Nah, we can keep our basic facts accurate and still write drop-dead romantic cowboys. That's the beauty of fiction. ;) Thank you for stopping in and leaving me a comment.

Cheryl Norman said...

Devon, this was a very interesting post! I learned a lot more about cowboys and their wardrobes.

Devon Matthews said...

Hi, Cheryl! Very tickled to see you here. Glad you enjoyed the post! Thanks so much for paying us a visit! :)

Jacquie Rogers said...

Love your post, Devon, and the picture, too. Notice your cowboy's britches don't have belt loops.

Britches didn't even have belt loops until the 1920s, and belts were worn only for holding weapons or equipment--gun belts, sword belts, etc. They were usually worn outside the coat or jacket (see old military photos).

Devon Matthews said...

Jacquie, that's a great detail and should be included! Wonder how many authors have run afoul of that. Thanks so much for sharing! :)

Teresa Reasor said...

I LOVED the blog!! Excellent information.AND I need to save this so when I write my Western I'll have it.
Teresa R.

Devon Matthews said...

Thanks for stopping by, Teresa. I've always said you should try it and if you ever do write a western, I'll be first in line to read it! :D