Men’s western wear served as the roots for denim jeans, plaid shirts, cowboy boots, and hats. The look hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years, but there was a time in the mid-century where practical westernwear met mainstream fashion and created new styles.
The 1920s to 1950s is known as the heyday of western style clothing. The mass migration out west and the discovery of rich farming and cattle land in California was mostly complete by the 1930s. Hollywood established itself not in the hustle and bustle of big city life, but in the quiet desert of Southern California, surrounded by rolling hills and cattle farms.
Despite whatever actors and actresses portrayed on TV, at home they often found peace in a California ranch home. It didn’t matter if they raised horses or cattle, they lived in these homes and dressed as casually as the working class farmers around them.
It was only a matter of time before home life became screen life. Black and white “Western” movies and TV shows captured life “out in the Wild West,” chasing outlaws on horseback. Fictional plots no less, but the fascination with this rough life was felt by adults and children.
My dad, who grew up in the 1940s, remembers being glued to the TV watching The Lone Ranger and shouting “Hi Ho Silver” every show. For all little boys and girls, this was the dream. To grow up and capture bank robbers in full western wear — boots, hat, and all. The clothing industry catered to this with replica western clothing for children long before the trend took off for adults.
1920s Men’s Western Clothes
The early western movie stars set the stage for a working-western-meets-high-fashion partnership. The look was nearly identical to real working cowboys. Wool cashmere shirts; denim, wool or heavy cotton black trousers; an optional cotton-wool vest; leather or goat hair chaps; western boots (black with inset of white suede or embroidery in red); and accessories such as a western belt, red silk neck scarf, and a wide and tall western hat in white or black felt (such as a Carlsbad).
Denim jeans with an extra wide waistband, contrast stitching, and reinforced rivets were being marketed to the western ranch-hand or “cowpuncher.”
“The typical cowboy costume can hardly be said to contain a coat and waistcoat. The heavy woollen shirt, loose and open at the neck, is the common wear at all seasons of the year… If the cowboy wears a coat, he will wear it open and loose as much as possible. If he wears a vest, you will see him wear it slouchily, hanging open or partly unbuttoned most of the time.” – The Story of the Cowboy, by Emerson Hough, 1925
Attending live rodeo was a major interest in the 1920s. Spectators by the thousands turned up to watch the traveling shows. Initially. men dressed similar to those of working western ranchers. As more western movies were being made with men in flashy Spanish inspired outfits, however, rodeo costumes began adding brighter colors, tighter pants, and bigger chaps. These flashy Rodeo star looks were the inspiration of 1930s and 1940s westernwear.
For Rodeo riders, the fanciest part of the costume were the chaps. Fluffy Angora hair (rabbit) in white or black and white were large and striking from a distance. All leather chaps came with insets such as stars, diamonds, and initials trimmed in fringe. Silver conchas and tassels were fancy options for smaller rodeos and movies.
1922 Hamley Saddle Catalog – Clothing begins in page 116 including chaps, belts, and boots.
1930s Men’s Western Wear
The typical 1930s real western rancher’s clothes were similar to those worn in the 1920s:
- Hat: Dove grey “western” hat about 7 inches tall and nearly as wide. Could also be light tan or black. Leather band or silver wire.
- Belt: Leather belt, nail studded or with silver conchas. Rattlesnake leather or similar reptile skin was an option.
- Shirts: Plaid or stripe flannel, denim chambray, wool, yoke “rodeo” lace up shirt in neutral colors. Pink or blue arm garters.
- Pants: Denim jeans (yoke back), heavy wool pants, cotton-wool twill pants.
- Chaps: Leather “wing” chaps with decoration.
- Vest: Four pocket “civilian” style wool vest. Worn open and unbuttoned. Held cigarettes or other tobacco products.
- Handkerchief: Red cotton bandana or silk, either plane or with a “rodeo” print.
- Coat: Sack suit style coat in neutral color. Wool, leather, or canvas materials.
Most of these clothes were also worn by the general working class men. Read about those here.
The cowboy, his characteristics, his equipment, and his part in the development of the West by Rollins, Philip Ashton, 1930s
The western movie star’s outfit grew in flashiness and color. Bright hues, decorative embroidery, patterned neck scarves, and lighter color trousers were worn by singing cowboys who rarely saw the back of a horse.
For “Dude” ranchers whose job it was to entertain guests more than wrangle horses, they also dressed in more “rodeo star” clothes. Clean but rugged-looking was the goal.
1940s Western Wear
The end of World War II saw the rise of the Western shirt industry. Independently and almost simultaneously, Rockmount Ranch Wear, Karman Western Wear, H-Bar-C/California Ranchwear, and Panhandle Slim began producing Western shirts into the market.
“The 1940s-50s became known as a Golden Age of Western shirts, based not only on the popularity of the new style, but also on the sheer artistry and construction that went into many of the production shirts. Snaps and yokes would remain stylish signatures of Western shirts, but embroidery and fancy pocket treatments all but disappeared until the 1980 movie Urban Cowboy revived interest in elaborate details. “ 100 Years of Western Wear by Tyler Beard, Jim Arndt
John Wayne movies of the 1940s had exaggerated western yokes, arrow pockets, whipcord piping, the revival of the bib-front shirt, fancy embroidery, and snap up fasteners on shirts. His Western style and those mass produced fashions that followed were more Hollywood than traditional wear, which was much plainer, practical, and dull in color.
1950s Western Clothing
In the 1950s, a new cowboy emerged from Hollywood — this time not out on the range, but inside by the fire, singing soulful tunes. Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, and Roy Rogers entertained families at home as single singing cowboys. They dressed in western influenced clothing that was wearable at home, not just out on the ranch.
The western style was influencing all types of garment designs, prints, and accessories. For men, the biggest influence was on casual shirts. Button down shirts featured double check pockets with button flaps or arrow tipped slit pockets. Shirt collars were extra long and pointy. Long shirt cuffs had 4-5 buttons, usually snaps. Shirts came in the very popular ’50s plaid as well as vertical stripes. Read more on the history of men’s 1950s shirts.
The most western styled shirts had yokes, fringe, colorful embroidery, western symbols, and the iconic V-front panels across the chest. Shirts could be cotton, but they also came in a shiny silk or rayon finish to mimic fancy rodeo duds.
The Western influence on shirts carried over into shirt-jackets and coats. The same style details were featured on men’s outerwear. Leather or suede were both common jacket materials as well as textured wool with suede elbow patches and collars. Extra large pockets, big shiny buttons, yokes, and inset panels all had a place on outerwear design.
Men’s western hats remained a popular option for those seeking the most Western look. They had severe turned-up brims and lower, flatter crowns to match the fedora and other city hats of the decade.
Men’s Western boots were colorful with wide box toes. In 1957, the pointy cockroach killer toe emerged.
Just as in the 1940s, the denim blue jeans were the epitome of Western influence. Blue jeans transitioned from western wear and workwear to casual wear for rebel teens, a move led by James Dean (Rebel Without a Cause) and Marlon Brando (The Wild One). Everyone was wearing blue jeans and jean jackets.
Levi’s changed their marketing campaign away from cowboys to teens going off to college and families relaxing at home. They also changed their line of blue jeans from “Dude Ranch Duds” to “Western Wear” by the end of the 1950s.
Both men and women wore jeans. The men’s cut featured contrast stitching, a straight leg, and wide rolled cuff. Denim was either a dark wash or a medium blue wash saturated with dye (no faded jeans yet!). Levi’s has reissued a few men’s jeans from the 1950s.
Debbie Sessions has been teaching fashion history and helping people dress for vintage themed events since 2009. She has turned a hobby into VintageDancer.com with hundreds of well researched articles and hand picked links to vintage inspired clothing online. She aims to make dressing accurately (or not) an affordable option for all. Oh, and she dances too.