Monday, June 27, 2016

The Evolution of Western Wear


...With their apparel sometimes proving inadequate to long days in the saddle, American cowboys subsequently bought, or made, clothes designed to meet the needs of their profession. Fancy embellishments on cowboy clothes would come slowly, grounded in practical considerations for structure or durability.

Sombreros to Stetsons

Long before cowpunchers began trailing beeves out of Texas in the 1860s, Hispanic horsemen tended vacas, Spanish for cattle, in Mexican Territory from Tejas to California. Known as “vaqueros,” these mounted herdsmen wore flashy garments: wide-brimmed sombreros, short waistcoats and jackets, colorful serapes, leather chaparreras over short pantaloons and tall-topped boots.

In a fatal decision to populate the area, the Mexican government invited American settlers to immigrate. As Texian cattlemen appropriated Mexican cattle and land, they adopted elements of the vaquero’s working attire. Modern buckaroos throughout the Southwest inherited much of their forebearers’ culture, including their name—an imprecise rendering of the word vaquero.

The dimensions of the sombrero overwhelmed the anglo interlopers who wore small-billed caps, slouch hats, bowlers and derbies. In 1865, Philadelphia hatmaker John B. Stetson designed a more modest version that still sheltered its wearer from the sun and rain. Stetson’s “Boss of the Plains,” originally a hand-felt design meant to amuse traveling companions on a tour of the American West, quickly became the first, and arguably the most distinct, identifiable part of a cowboy’s ensemble.

Cowboy Boots

The cowboy boot came next, leaving an indelible footprint on the Western landscape.
American and European horsemen decamping for the West after the Civil War arrived wearing low-heeled stovepipe boots or military issue cavalry boots and Wellingtons—calf-high boots with a standard shoe heel. Immigrants traveling West by foot or on wagons or in trains wore Wellies, brogans, moccasins or even went barefoot.

None of these footwear options suited cowboys spending 10 to 12 hours at a time in the saddle. Cobblers in Coffeyville, Kansas, are generally credited with producing the first boots that satisfied the needs of drovers trailing herds through the area in the early 1870s. These boots featured round toes, narrow, reinforced arches and higher heels.

The first boots were custom made and handcrafted. They lacked the stitching and other ornamentation commonly seen on modern cowboy boots. Stitching would come about as a way to stiffen the tall leather shafts and keep them from slouching. Another shift in the boot’s design was the high, underslung heel—adapted from the similarly-styled “Cuban heel”—which helped prevent the rider’s foot from slipping through the oversize stirrups on Western saddles. (Some observers contend that the heel made cowboys feel taller and gave them a little swagger when they walked. The reality is probably a little of both.)

In 1879, H.J. “Joe” Justin moved to Spanish Fort, Texas, to make boots for cowboys herding cattle north. Justin and other pioneer bootmakers, such as Tony Lama and Sam Lucchese, soon dominated the cowboy market with their high quality, comfortable boots. Justin was the first firm to offer mail order boots, with a measuring system invented by Joe’s wife Annie. The system revolutionized custom bootmaking, making Justin famous throughout the West as it became settled.

Cowboy boots eventually became palettes for artistically-inclined bootmakers who were happy to oblige the vanities of preening cowpunchers and, later, Hollywood cowboy actors and Nashville musicians. The comfort and fit demanded by Western boot customers in the 1980s would radically change the components and construction of  cowboy footwear. Plain Wellingtons, known as “ropers,” became a fad in the 1980s, largely because of their shoe-like fit. In the early 1990s, technologically-advanced boots introduced by a new company, Ariat, revolutionized Western boots and created a whole subcategory of Western and riding boots...

I wonder what the robots will wear?

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