Friday, September 1, 2017

Dress like a Cowboy

What's in your fifth pocket?

That little pocket on your jeans. How often have you wondered what the heck it's for? If you're like me you thought that pocket was to store your emergency quarter in the event you got in trouble and needed to phone home--back in the day before cell phones. Turns out this pocket is called the watch pocket. When Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss patented the design for jeans in 1873 with miners in mind, they included a handy place to keep a size 16 pocket watch. They also put in rivets at stress points so heavy tools didn't ruin the pants. Even today the belt loops are spaced to take the watch clip. This style of pants designed for miners was quickly picked up by ranchers. Why dark blue? The color does the best job hiding dirt.

Learning I've been walking around with a watch pocket for decades made me wonder what other vestiges of bygone days are hidden in my wardrobe. It also got me curious about western wear in general. I did a little research on some of the mainstays of this fashion and discovered it's a marriage of function and style, which has not only lent much to the fashion of future generations of non-cowboys, but it's also a style with an interesting history.

If western wear had a family tree, it's roots would originate with the cattle herders of 12th c Spain, the old Castille region to be specific. Low-crowned, wide-brimmed hats, spurred boots, tight pants, bolero jackets, and a sash were the herders costume.

Vaquero in Spanish California, 1830's

When the practice of cattle herding moved to the new world, the costume changed to adapt to new landscapes. In the American west slabs of cowhide were hung from the saddle to protect the rider's legs from brush and cactus--and so chaps were born. Chaps with the hair left on are called "woolies."

Chilling in his woolie chaps

Every piece of a cowboy's wardrobe has a function story as well as a style story. Because he had to travel light, articles of clothing had to prove its worth. Take for instance the bandana. This square piece of cloth used to keep dust and sun off the neck can also be used as a potholder, a first aid item, ear muffs, a filter to strain the bugs and dirt out of your water, and if you're up to no good, a disguise. Bandana comes from the Hindi word bandhnu, meaning a tied cloth. Martha Washington, our first, first lady introduced the bandana to America when she commissioned one to be made with the image of her husband on horseback, starting a popular souvenir trend. The most recognizable bandana pattern which is still made today is a paisley design from Kashmir called by cowboys, the "Persian Pickle". The paisley pattern comes in every color under the sun, but red is probably the most popular.

The "Persian Pickle" pattern

The cowboy shirt as we know it today with its pearl snaps, pocket flaps, and triangular yoke is largely the design of tailor Jack Weil in the 1940's. Seeing that cowboys often function one-handed, Weil came up with the brainstorm of using snaps instead buttons (what a cowboy is doing with one hand while he needs to rip his shirt off in a hurry, I do not know). He reinforced the parts of the shirt that take the most strain by adding the distinctive yoke. He put flaps on the pockets so all your hoofs picks and what have you don't fall out when you bend over. We can also thank Weil for making the shirts form-fitting to prevent them from getting caught on things. Thank you, Mr. Weil.

The western style shirt has some interesting antecedents. As well as having roots in the vaquero tradition, the cowboy shirt gives a nod to Civil War uniforms. The bib or shield front, which I associate with John Wayne, comes from a Union battle shirt designed by Custer, who in turn borrowed the design from early firefighters.

The Duke in a Bib or Shield Front Shirt 

And from the other side of the Mason Dixon line comes some of the more flamboyant features of the cowboy shirt. The fancy piping, contrasting yokes, ruffles, plaids, and decorative embroidery draw from the Confederate battle shirt. Yes, that's right. I was surprised by that too, but after spelunking into the depths of the Pinterest cave for a good part of the afternoon, I saw some amazing designs. Apparently, the ladies who made the shirts for their loved ones going off to fight, sent them off in style.

Example of a Confederate Battle Shirt
In the early days, western headgear was no different than what folks covered their heads with elsewhere in the country. Picture the cowboy in a bowler hat. Then in 1870 John Stetson moved to the west for his health. He noticed the Spanish style hats worn in the area and fashioned a hat for himself, which again was based in part on the Union Calvary's blue kepi. When a cowboy admired Stetson's hat, he sold it to him for $5. Hello cowboys in Stetsons!

Ad for Stetson Hat

Like other items in the cowboy's wardrobe, the Stetson isn't just for looks. The hat is multi-functional. The wide brim afforded protection from rain, sun, and snow. The high crown provides an air pocket that helps insulate the head in cold weather, and in hot weather the hat can be soaked in water to cool the hot cowboy. The v-shaped dip in front of the brim shields the eyes when riding into direct sunlight at certain times of the day, while leaving vision clear either side of it. And in the days of limited means of communication, waving your big hat was a way to signal across vast spaces. Stetsons are made of such a tight weave they can be used as a bucket as in the ad above.

And, finally, speaking of buckets, the term Ten Gallon Hat doesn't have anything to do with how much water a hat can hold. Can you imagine how large a hat that holds ten gallons would be? Try walking around with ten jugs of milk stacked on your head. The term probably comes from the corruption of the Spanish phrase tan galán, meaning something like "so handsome". Or more likely the name comes from the braids on Spanish-style called galóns. A hat with a brim wide enough for ten braids was a ten galón hat.

P.S., I'm not forgetting cowboy boots and belt buckles. I'm deliberately avoiding them for the moment.


Andrea Downing said...

Who wants to cool a hot cowboy?! As for ripping open the snaps with one hand I leave that to your imagination what the other hand might be doing. Of course there's always the possibility the cowboy lost a thumb in a roping accident so snaps are easier than buttons. Thanks Patti--great post!

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Hi, Andi! thanks for stopping by. In my imagination the hot cowboy is doing rope tricks with one hand while unsnapping his shirt with the other. Have a great weekend!

Kristy McCaffrey said...

Great post, Patti!! I had no idea where bandannas came from... :-)

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Thanks Kristy! I'm glad you stopped by. It was interesting to see how the look developed.

Shanna Hatfield said...

Such a fun post, Patti! Thanks for sharing!

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Thanks, Shanna! I'm glad you stopped by!