Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Properly Dressed Cowboy


Ronald Reagan in a cowboy hat at Rancho del Cielo in 1976. Photo in public domain.

In the 1800s, clothing choice was vitally important to cowboys riding the range and on cattle drives. Proper clothing could save a cowboy's life, or that of his horse. Every item of clothing, from the boots to the hat, was carefully chosen before the cowboy left on a cattle drive or started work on the ranch.

Levi's 501 jeans. Photo by Michael Carian. 

In classic Western films, however, cowboys are often seen in clothing more acceptable to the times the film was made. For instance, it is a popular misconception that cowboys wore blue jeans in the 1800s. Although Levi Strauss and his partner were hard at work on a design, blue jeans were simply not available to cowboys in the early to mid-1800s.

Levi Strauss teamed up with Jacob Davis, a Latvian tailor, in 1868 to make durable pants for miners and cowboys using canvas for fabric and rivets to hold them together. The pants were not introduced in San Francisco by Levi Strauss & Company until 1873. These pants were canvas, though, and died brown, not blue. It did not take long for the popular product to make its way around the country, but these durable pants still cost money. In the early 1800s, cowboys wore wool pants purchased in second-hand stores, discards from wealthier people in town.

American Civil War soldier Samuel Black. Photo public domain. 

In the mid to late 1800s, cowboy attire was a mix of the second-hand wool pants and military uniforms from the American Civil War. They also wore the flat-heeled marching boots required by the military until they could afford to have a custom made pair. They wore heavy, gray Confederate army coats, which served them well in winter blizzards.

The cowboy uniform changed over the next ten to twenty years as clothing mass-produced in factories became more accessible and less expensive. However, cowboys continued to wear loose-fitting cotton shirts and wool pants. When the clothing wore thin it was repaired by the cook in the outfit.

According to Russell Freedman's Cowboys of the West, cowboys often stitched buckskin across the seat and down the inner thighs so the pants would not wear out from rubbing against the saddle all day long.

As mentioned before on this blog, cowboys had difficulty reaching into their pants pockets while in the saddle, so they often wore vests with pockets that were deep enough to keep items from falling out. Cowboys in the Southwest covered these vests with heavy canvas jackets to protect their bodies from thorns and cactus spines. Northern cowboys wore knee-length coats made from sheepskin or wool, depending on the type of animals they kept on their ranches.

The 1974 Western film Zandy's Bride is an interesting--and accurate--portrayal of how cowboy apparel was often designed according to the animals available on the ranch. Gene Hackman, the star of Zandy's Bride, lives on a ranch in Big Sur, California. He wears a thick wool coat in the opening scene, which is soon replaced by a heavy bear skin coat in the winter months.

Slickers, or oilskin raincoats were a necessity on the range and cowboys kept these rolled up and tied to the saddle or in the chuck wagon if they were on a cattle drive.

Perhaps one of the more well-known items of cowboy attire--besides boots and hats, or course--would be chaps. Chaps were invented by Mexican vaqueros, the original cowboys, and originally called chaparreras. They were used to protect the pants and legs from thorns and cactus spines.

An early style of chaps, called "Shotguns" were more like pants made of leather that the cowboy would step into, and these leather pants were replaced by the more popular batwing versions seen most often in Western movies--chaps that wrapped around the leg and fastened in back.

Batwing chaps, like coats, varied with the region. In the Southwest, cowboys wore chaps made of smooth leather. In the North, cowboys wore chaps made of wool, or fur, depending on the animals raised on the ranch.

The design of cowboy boots is strictly utilitarian, as well--pointed toes to slip easily into a stirrup; high heels to keep the heel in the stirrup; knee high to protect the legs from thorns and keep the dirt out of the boot; and tabs, or "mule ears" to tug the boot onto the foot. Fancy spurs attached to the boots were important to keep the horses moving, though cowboys enjoyed a variety of shapes and styles available for show.

Although current styles keep the pant leg outside of the boots, cowboys in the 1800s wore their pant legs tucked inside so they wouldn't snag on twigs and thorns. (If you haven't figured this out yet from these detailed descriptions of cowboy attire, cows have a habit of wandering into thorny areas where they are...rescued by cowboys!)

Cowboys spent as much as a month's wages to have their boots custom made. The only cowboys who wore ready made boots were either inexperienced green horns or cowboys saving their money for the real thing!

Although one might think a bandanna would be used for show, this is far from the truth. Bandannas came in a variety of bright colors to make the cowboy more visible in bad weather. They served--and still serve--many purposes. They block the hot Southwestern sun to prevent sunburn and mop up sweat from the brow. They keep the dust out of the mouth and nose during dust storms and warm the ears in cold weather. They are also used as washcloths, tourniquets, and blindfolds to lead horses out of burning barns.

Finally, the cowboy hat. Cowboy hats shield the top of the head from the heat of the sun, and the eyes from the sun's glare. The keep rain off the face. They can be used to wave to a friend from a distance, and to smack a slow horse on the rump.

Nowadays, cowboys wear hats according to what they need for their job more than fashion or to show what part of the country they come from. In the 1800s, style choice depended on region. In the Southwest, cowboy hats had tall crowns and wide brims. In the North, brims were narrow and crowns lower so they would not blow away. It was easy to identify where a cowboy came from by the style of his hat.

Although styles, colors, and patterns used on cowboy attire has changed over the years, the basic items remain the same because each item serves an important purpose in the life and work of a cowboy.

For more information on clothing see "The Boots They Wore..." on this blog.

(I am in the process of repairing damage to my blogs after they were hacked so some photos and sources may be missing. I apologize for the delay). 

Sources: 
  • Freedman, Russell. Cowboys of the West. Clarion Books. New York: 1985. 



49 comments:

NCCPhotography said...

Great post. I especially liked how you picked up on the differences in hats. Most don't know that. Have a great day.

The Arizona Prospector
http://theazprospector.blogspot.com

Darla Sue Dollman said...

The difference in hats becomes more obvious as you travel, and I find it fascinating that the difference exists to this day! Of course, I collect hats, so I would notice these things, but I found the differences documented in books, as well. Apparently, there are many of us who love cowboy hats!

Rob Lopez said...

That was very educational and something of an eye opener to a Brit raised on Westerns. Thank you.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Thank you, Rob. Did you read my post about British students and their knowledge of the Old West? I'm curious what you think of that issue.

Tim Shey said...

I have hitchhiked a lot in the western states and, if you are in the sun as much as I am, eventually your lips get sunburned, they get dried out, crack and bleed. This can be very annoying. Once I was in the sun for too long near Ridgecrest, California and my lips eventually cracked and bled. It took three weeks for my lips to heal up.

Why do I mention this? I have noticed that some cowboys have big mustaches that cover their lips. A big mustache would cover your lips from the sun.

When was lip balm invented? Did cowboys use something else instead of lip balm?

Darla Sue Dollman said...

That's an interesting question. I know many people had problems with their teeth and it's possible the mustache hid yellow teeth. Now I'm intrigued--yet another subject I must research! I've often wondered about makeup in the Old West, and whether or not women wore perfume. I'd like to find out more on that subject.

I read a funny story in a Louis L'Amour book. The young man in the book arrived in Santa Fe and decided he needed a bath. He found a room with rows of tubs, undressed and started to soak in the water. A few minutes later a few of the townswomen arrived with their arms full of clothes and he realized he was bathing in the tubs they used for washing clothes!

Anonymous said...

My upper lip gets sunburned without my mustache. I think you are correct in guessing why they grew big staches!

C. S. Lakin said...

I'm wondering about buffalo hide. Back in the mid 1800s, buffalo were everywhere and buffalo tanners, shippers, traders were everywhere. The tanned hide was used for everything, including wall paneling and the seats in carriages, so I'm wondering if cowboys made chaps from buffalo hide. Seems someone would have. Thanks for the info!

C. S. Lakin said...

I'm wondering about buffalo hide. Back in the mid 1800s, buffalo were everywhere and buffalo tanners, shippers, traders were everywhere. The tanned hide was used for everything, including wall paneling and the seats in carriages, so I'm wondering if cowboys made chaps from buffalo hide. Seems someone would have. Thanks for the info!

Darla Sue Dollman said...

C.S., to be honest I'm not sure. However, I did attend a very extensive museum show on the American cowboy on Sunday that included samples of the different materials cowboys used to make their clothing and there wasn't a single sample of buffalo hide. I am going to venture a guess that perhaps buffalo hide was too thick and tough to work with? A possibility? Of course, there could have been a few who tried buffalo hide for something different, but the many books I've read and museum displays I've seen always show cowhide.

Kay said...

You're right. My husband makes chaps in his leather shop, and buffalo is tougher/stiffer than most guys want to deal with. Also heavy. Cowhide is softer, lighter, and more 'drapey'. Important when you will be wearing them all day. :) (My husband is a working cowboy.)

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Well my goodness we would love to hear more! If you or your husband are ever interested in writing a guest post with a few pictures showing how chaps are made I have plenty of eager readers interested in what you have to say. Just let me know.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

And I just read your profile! I am preparing to move back to Colorado where I spent most of my life. I am very familiar with Wyoming, particularly Cheyenne, with its extensive Old West history that will be covered in an upcoming blog post. I would love to interview you sometime about life as a ranch mother, and if you're uncomfortable with writing about your business, I could do an interview for my blog or another of the publications I write for at the moment. Just let me know: dsdollman@yahoo.com

Anonymous said...

Outstanding post however I was wondering if you
could write a litte more on this topic? I'd be very
thankful if you could elaborate a little bit further.
Many thanks!

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Darla Sue Dollman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Darla Sue Dollman said...

Anonymous, I don't usually post comments that direct to other pages, but I could see how a mens' hairstylist would be interested in clothing styles! I have actually written on this topic a few times. The more I learn about it, the more I write about it, but I recently visited a cowboy display at the Santa Fe, New Mexico Museum and learned so much more about clothing particularly hat-making in the Old West, so I promise I will write about it again soon!

Anonymous said...

I have been researching Blue Jeans for the play Oklahoma and from the website us.levi.com, the first true blue denim jean was manufactured in 1873.
"THE BLUE JEAN IS BORN
Jacob Davis, a tailor from Reno, Nevada, teams with Levi Strauss to create riveted-for-strength workwear made of true blue denim. On May 20, 1873 the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office grants patent #139,121 to Levi Strauss & Co. and Jacob Davis for their invention. This is how the blue jean, originally called "XX," was born."

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Yes, that is correct. That is what I say in the article, as well, if you read it closely. The pair teamed up before 1973. Sometimes it takes awhile to get the idea moving in the right direction.

Unknown said...

I was wondering how the cowboy managed cold temperatures in his custom made boots which I imagined they were cut to fit tightly to his foot but leaving little room for thicker socks.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Finally, an actual comment that isn't spam! Thank you! Lol! Not all cowboy boots were custom made and in fact, most cowboys could not afford custom made boots until after they brought the cattle in, which is when they'd start the routine--a hot bath, new clothes, and a trip to either the bar or the brothel. On the other hand, many small general stores could not afford to carry a variety of stock and would order in the boots, so sometimes it was cheaper/faster to have them custom made. It all depends on the town you were in, the time period, the area of the country, etc. I think it's time for another post on clothing because readers seem to enjoy this post quite a bit. I am in the middle of a move, but promise to post again on clothing in the following week.

Anonymous said...

Hi there!
You're blog is awesome! Had a quick question: could you possibly make a list of books/websites that you get all of your information from?

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I do not generally use other websites for information. I use books that show careful research museum research and sometimes conversations with people whose ancestors were involved in the events. However, I just moved to Colorado from New Mexico and I'm in the process of unpacking my library, so it would actually be fairly easy for me to create a list of suggested resources. As far as individual topics, if you look at the bottom of the posts I generally list the sources I used for that topic with all the information you would need to look it up. As far as this topic is concerned, I am working on another topic on clothing as it is one of my most popular posts. Thanks for reading!

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I do not generally use other websites for information. I use books that show careful research museum research and sometimes conversations with people whose ancestors were involved in the events. However, I just moved to Colorado from New Mexico and I'm in the process of unpacking my library, so it would actually be fairly easy for me to create a list of suggested resources. As far as individual topics, if you look at the bottom of the posts I generally list the sources I used for that topic with all the information you would need to look it up. As far as this topic is concerned, I am working on another topic on clothing as it is one of my most popular posts. Thanks for reading!

amy_820@sbcglobal.net said...

I have been watching Bonanza lately and have noticed that at times when they are likely to get into a gun fight they tie a string around their thigh on the side that their holster is on. Do you know what that may be for? My husband thinks it is to hold the holster in place but it does not seem to be attached.

Darla Sue Dollman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Darla Sue Dollman said...

In the show, it may be part of the costume and appear that it is not attached, but your husband is correct, it is to tie the holster in place. Belt holsters often had tie down strings, or, believe it or not, loops that went around the toe. For cowboys on the range, the gun was used for protection from poachers, Native American Indians, wild animals, and often kept in the chuckwagon, but for the gunfighter, keeping the holster as stable as possible is key so the gun could be drawn smoothly and quickly for the ultimate accuracy in aim

Cowboy Costume said...

In the 1800s, clothing choice was vitally important to cowboys riding the range and on cattle drives. Proper clothing could save a cowboy's life, ... cowboycostume.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

I love on a ranch in Montana, and in the summer, if your lips ain't covered, as you said, they will get brittle and crack and bleed. A lot of us keep either a kerchief or a silk wild rag around our necks that can be pulled up over our noses to prevent sunburn (especially on our lips) and wind burn, as well as breathing in dust on dry years. Hope this helps :)

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katie said...

Why were cowboy vests shorter in the back?

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I could look this up, but I just finished moving yesterday and my entire life is in my garage, including all of my books. I'm going to take a guess here and say they were shorter in the back because it was more comfortable when sitting on a horse.

dasnake said...

were short pants ever seen in the west. I understand they weren't considered manly, but I have traveled the west and the heat is stifling, with horses maybe it wasn't a capable thing any ideas?

Darla Sue Dollman said...

To the best of my knowledge it would have been considered indecent for men or women to show that much skin. Does that make sense? In the late 1800s when swim suits became shorter the beaches (not in the West, obviously) actually had people who measured the length of the swimsuit to make sure the women were not showing too much skin. I keep thinking I've seen photos of young boys in short pants, but the boys were very young and I think the photos were closer to the turn of the century.

Charlie Siringo said...

I would like to comment on the question of having a "tie down" for a holster (or scabbard as they were also known). Much of the history that I have read would indicate that "tie downs" were more commonly used to keep the gun from flapping around while the cowboy was on horse back. Generally, the gunbelt was left in the wagon, along with bedroll, as it was too tiresome to wear and work with on cattle drives. It was only worn if trouble was expected or the cowboy was going to be away from the main herd.

If a gunfight was anticipated, the gun belt would be worn with the buckle in the back so that the cartridge loops would be to the front and easily accessible.

There a very few pictures that I have seen of the period showing cowboys with a "tie down"

Thank you for the your postings. I have found them to be informative and interesting.

dasnake said...

I'm no authority by a long shot, (no pun), but my reading has led me to believe the tie down is pure Hollywood, much like the street gunfight and the B western holsters. Another thing of fact was a loaded colt always had five shots, they would load 1 miss 1, load 4, that way the hammer dropped on an empty cylinder, that way no accidents would happen.

Sarah said...

Thanks for this info. I've got into watching the old westerns from the 60's: High Chaperral, the Virginian, Big Valley, etc. and I was especially curious about the vests at first. Then tonight was the chaps that I didn't know the name of. :)

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post and it was quite informative. But it made me wonder about undergarments. I'd think the wool pants would be scratchy. Did they wear anything under them? I've seen movies where Union Suits seemed to be the norm, but were there other options?

Chuck said...

Did cowboys wear underwear and if so what kind and style?

Leofwine said...

A really fascinating and informative article, thank you for sharing it.
One thing that does fascinate me is what the clothing cost back then? I've seen figures quoting that a cowboy earned around $30-40 per month on average (I think this was c.1850-70 or thereabouts), so it would be interesting to know what the clothing cost was relative to what seems like a fairly low income. Do you have any information on prices?

Leofwine said...

A really fascinating and informative article, thank you for sharing it.
One thing that does fascinate me is what the clothing cost back then? I've seen figures quoting that a cowboy earned around $30-40 per month on average (I think this was c.1850-70 or thereabouts), so it would be interesting to know what the clothing cost was relative to what seems like a fairly low income. Do you have any information on prices?

Darla Sue Dollman said...

That's a good question, and considering this has always been my most popular of the nearly 200 posts on this page I think it's time to revisit this topic. I've learned so much more about the subject from visits to museums over the past few years so I will discuss it again and see if I can find information on the cost of clothing. There was an earlier post that discussed cost, but I can update that one, as well.

dasnake said...

Where are the people for the blog? This is a great site, interested people should post more often. Much better than telling social media what lunch was.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Thank you! I took a break to write a book, which is almost finished.

dasnake said...

Hello and thanks Darla Sue, I'll keep an eye here, good luck with your book.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Thank you! The drop-dead deadline (as in, I've been working on this book so long I will drop if I don't finish) is this weekend, so...not much longer! Thanks for reading!

dasnake said...

Hey darla, how is the book doing? Not much happening, so I thought I would bring up another query about boots, I do quite a few rodeos and notice the riders wear the square toe, flat heel style, is that comfort or a more solid platform? I wear boots a lot and know the Cuban heel is rockier than flat, have I answered my own query? Also, belts? When and why did the large buckles come about? I know suspenders were the mainstream, when did belts have their main start? Anyway now with the book finished I hope we can have more people posting.
Have a good thanksgiving and talk later.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Dear dasnake:

No, your post was not lost, I received it when it was sent earlier this evening, but I do not have a way to reply to you personally and I was busy with my family. I also do not work from my cell phone as so many writers do these days, so questions are generally answered when I check my email.

My book is doing well. Thank you for asking, but that is not why I have delayed in posting on my many blogs. I have had a shocking series of family tragedies to cope with over the past two years--in addition to the book contract--and did not feel comfortable discussing or explaining them on this blog. They are a bit off topic and personal to my family.

However, I do read the comments that are sent to me every day and respond as quickly as possible. I have continued to write on all of my blogs, but only in bits and pieces as time permits, and as you can see my blog posts tend to be rather long, so it can take as much as a few months for me to complete a post. There have been many since this post on clothing. I hope you've enjoyed reading them.

I will not be able to respond to your question as quickly as you seem to require a reply in this case, but I will do my best.

They are, however, interesting questions and as I said before, I believe it is time to write a new post on Old West clothing. Belts--great question, of course, as well as the size of belt buckles and I believe I know the answer to that one without looking it up, but I prefer to document with sources before posting. For instance, when I wrote in January about the Oregonian I discovered there were so many conflicting reports on what happened in that situation that it literally took months to sort it all out and present the story in a readable fashion. I was working on my book at the same time and found myself in an identical situation when writing about the Denver flood of 1864--there were so many conflicting views on what actually happened that I had to read all of them, take notes, then determine which sources were the most credible, while mentioning that there were other opinions on the event, as well. It would be so much easier if I was simply sharing my personal opinions, but I chose to write about history and that requires constant research.

I will answer your question within the next two weeks, either on this post or with a new post since I've been piecing away at a new post on clothing anyway.

Thank you for reading!
Darla Sue Dollman

Darla Sue Dollman said...

dasnake, when I opened your last comment I unleashed an ad virus on my computer.

I appreciate your loyalty--you've been reading my blog for a long time--but I made a request many years ago that when people comment on my blogs they use their real names.

Thank you!

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I don't think it could come from the email. The email would have come from the blog. The virus would be on the blog. I started requesting real names because my blogs were hacked repeatedly by the same person. I'm not sure it made a difference, but I appreciate knowing your name! You post on here often.

I am trying. I have dozens of half-finished posts. I lost three family members and six pets this year. It's been hard, but I'm still writing and I appreciate your loyalty.

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