A young city boy is spending his first summer with his grandparents on their Wyoming ranch. After a good nights’ rest the boy wakes up in the morning to go help his grandfather with the morning chores. 

While walking out to the shed the boy noticed that his grandfather was wearing strange clothes. 

The boy asks his grandfather “Papa, why are you wearing such a big hat?” 

The grandfather took his hat off so the boy could look at it and said “Son, this is a cowboy hat. This hat is to help protect me from the sun, rain and cold.” 

The boy smiles and continues to look around. He sees his grandma riding her horse. While she was ridding he watched her kick the horse with spiky pinwheels on her boots. 

“Papa, why is grandma hurting the horse with her shoes?” 

Papa smiled and replied “Your grandmother loves Jade way too much to hurt her. She is using the metal spurs on the backs of her boots to help tell Jade where to go. It's their way of communicating.”

They begin their morning chores. After walking through the brush the young boy begins to complain and pick grass and cacti out of his jeans. The grandfather looks over at him and states “We might need to get you some chaps.” 

"What's a chap?" the young boy asked.

“Chaps are pieces of leather that cover your jeans to help protect your legs from thorns and other plants.”

The young city boy smiled and said “This summer I want to be just like you. Walk like you, talk like you and definitely dress like you!” 

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Cowboys, ranchers and farmers have a unique style of dress to help them do their jobs in the most efficient way possible. Thanks to Wild West movies and TV shows such as John Wayne the cowboy has become an almost mythical way to perceive the Wild West and its culture. A cowboy's attire was originally shaped by both the limited resources available and his choice in profession. The 19th century cowboys attire may have been very limited but this choice in clothing is what people imagine when they think of a Wyoming Cowboy. 

El Dorado, El Dorado
FilmPublicityArchive/United Arch

Thanks to the American Cowboy, Western Wear is now known as the only indigenous fashion category in America.

Early American Western Wear was not made for fashion,  it was made to be practical. It had to be! Working long hours in the sun, rain, wind and snow they had to be prepared for anything and everything. The American Frontier was originally only open to hunters, trappers, explorers and traders. Much of the clothing you see on the picturesque cowboy we adopted from the Native Americans. Due to game being plentiful and clothing being scarce, leather became a big part in western wear. 

Shortly after the Spanish arrived in the Americas in 1519  they began to build ranches. Mexico’s native cowboys were called Vaqueros. Vaqueros were hired by the ranchers to tend to the livestock and were known for their roping, riding and herding skills. The vaqueros began to notice that after a day of riding their necks would be burnt and their pants and legs would be covered in brush and cacti. A solution needed to be found. Wide brimmed hats called sombreros were designed to keep the sun out of the vaqueros’ eyes, off their necks and protect them from other elements throughout the work day. The first solution to help protect their legs was called “armas”. Armas were large pieces of leather that hung on both sides of the saddle. These were attached to the saddle to help protect the riders legs. Soon after the armas was invented the “armitas” was created. This is more like the chaps we know and see today. Two pieces of leather attached to a belt around the waist allowed more freedom for the ranchers to move. 

Charreada, Mexican Rodeo in Mexico City
Getty Images

When watching a western  film you would notice the cowboys wearing a rag or scarf around their necks. These rags are called Wild Rags. Scarves or handkerchiefs have been worn for practical reasons by roman soldiers, pirates and countless others for many years. In the early 1800s upper class gentlemen wore silk cravats. Silk became the preferred  fabric for a wild rag due to its versatility. It would warm the riders neck in the winter and it would keep it cool in the summer while protecting it from getting sunburnt. 

During the early to mid 1800s many English speaking settlers began to migrate west to secure land and begin new lives. It was quickly realized that the shoes they originally traveled west in would not hold up to the long days working on the ranch. Boots were then created with a heel and reinforced arched to help stop them from sliding through the stirrups. These boots also provided the comfort and durability they needed for life on the ranch.

Raquel Welch Dressed as a Cowgirl
Bettmann Archive

As more Americans moved west in the mid-1800’s for the railroads people began to adopt more of the vaqueros and Native American clothing styles to help them live a more practical lifestyle. As the years progressed the vaqueros and Native American fashion evolved. Sombreros were made smaller and into what we now know as a cowboy hat. Boots toes were rounded out and spurs were added onto the heels to help control and communicate with their horses. While America grew and more products became available the style we know as western wear not only was practical but could also be fashionable. Long strips were cut into leather called fringe and added to vests, coats, purses and chaps for some flare. Rhinestones were added onto jeans, belts, saddles and other accessories to make things sparkle and fabric designs varied from animal print to what we know today as paisleys. 

 The world has evolved over time but there are still some trends that you can see while walking down the streets of a Wyoming town. Men still carry wild rags, cowboy hats are still widely worn and I still own a pair of spurs. Keeping life practical and fashionable is a Wyoming way.


Western Wear Through the Years

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