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.
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.
|Back side of Batwing Chaps|
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. :)
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
How the West Was Worn by Chris Enss
Bandannas, Chaps, and Ten-Gallon Hats by Bobbie Kalman