Western attire is a form of clothing that is inextricably linked to American history. From cowboy boots to the classic hat, the iconic appearance of Western wear today remains loyal to its illustrious origins. Every pair of denim jeans or designer boots, no matter how marketed and bejeweled, bears witness to a way of life forged from the toil and craftsmanship of 19th- and 20th-century cobblers, shoemakers, tailors, and cowboys.
The Original Cowboy Boots
Following the Civil War, many American settlers moved west in search of land and a new life. While wearing military-issued Calvary boots, Wellington boots, and other types of low-heeled shoes, it became clear that these options would not hold up to long days in the field. In the early 1870s, the first boots designed to withstand the rigors of the working cowboy were stitched in Coffeyville, Kansas. Cuban heels strengthened arches, and round toes helped keep these boots sliding through the huge stirrups. By 1879, a dominating name on the cowboy boot scene had established itself—H.J. “Joe” Justin. Justin’s boots immediately became a preferred alternative throughout western America as the first to allow mail ordering for his work boots. As these boots gained popularity throughout the twentieth century due to movies, literature, theater, and country music, larger companies emerged to meet the growing demand. In the 1990s, one of these was Ariat, a well-known and trusted name in Western wear.
Denim Jeans or Waist-High Overalls
Simultaneously with the invention of cobbled cowboy boots, a tailor in Nevada called Jacob W. Davis applied to Levi Strauss for a patent for small copper rivets to reinforce the seams and pockets of his waist-high overalls. As Davis had been producing these rivets successfully for miners, Levi Strauss recognized the financial potential of the rivets and decided to cooperate with Davis. Though they began with hemp sailcloth for work pants, they later transitioned to cotton serge de Nimes, more often referred to as denim.
By the 1890s, blue-collar laborers, ranchers, and cowboys wore denim pants. These, too, were incorporated into mainstream media outlets, resulting in an explosion of “dude cowboys.” These men were ordinary city dwellers who desired to immerse themselves in “authentic” cowboy life. With the highest-quality boots, denim pants, and hats, these men would assist enormously to increase the appeal of western clothing. The pants were embellished with rhinestones and sequins in the 1950s by country music performers who built their careers on the classic cowboy singing style. Denim pants have evolved into a staple item of clothing for billions of people worldwide.
The Original Cowboy Hat
Following the fashion of Mexican vaqueros (cowboys in Spanish), American and European settlers began to dress like that of the vaqueros. Everything that the vaqueros wore was functional, from their big sombreros to their towering canadian cowboy boots and leather chaps to their large hats. American cowboys produced apparel similar to their European counterparts, one of which was the hat.
While we frequently associate Western clothing with satin shirts embellished with fringe and rhinestones, the genuine cowboys wore more utilitarian garments built for utility and longevity than show. While the old Western films that we continue to enjoy today may have popularized them for the rest of us, these rough garments were truly built for a hard existence in the weather.