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 trendy new styles. It is a part of fashion history that seems to get ignored, yet how could we ignore it?
Flipping through my vintage clothing catalogs, I see almost every men’s and women’s shirts and jeans had details clearly taken from working class/ranch-hand/ wild west United States traditional clothing. Why was it so popular? When did these new style begin? Why were the 1950s the epitome of vintage western clothing? Let’s take a look and see.
Western Wear Goes Hollywood
The late 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 homes and dressed as casual as the working class farmers.
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.
The clothing industry catered to this with replica western clothing for children long before the trend took off for adults. Sears had a line of “Roy Rogers” and “Dale Evans” outfits for girls and boys. There were also Dale Evans watches, sweaters, school book bags, hats and socks.
1920s and 1930s Western Clothing
Outside of TV, live rodeo was a major interest beginning in the late 1920s. Both men and women were rodeo stars with their fast mounts, faster quick draws, fancy chaps, fringe shirts, and rhinestone sparkling hats and belt buckles. These flashy Rodeo star looks were the inspiration of 1930s and 1940s western wear with little distinction between men’s and women’s styles.
Both wore breeches or denim jeans, button up shirts, cowboy boots, and large hats. Colors were very bright and flashy. Various shades of tanned leather were dripping in fringe, sequins, embroidery, and beads. Native American jewelry and motifs were common accessories.
A popular vacation for the middle classes was to a working dude ranch, where vacationers dressed the part. Some loved their clothes so much that they continued to wear them at home.
Women’s riding clothes / working ranch clothing was already in the western style. Learn more about women’s 1930s riding breeches and pants.
1940s Western Wear
Rodeo cowgirls Tad Lucas and Lucyle Richards were frequently in the spot light. Their vast wardrobes inspired what Hollywood and real women wore in the 1940s.
Western prints such as gingham, paisley, and plaid were made into dresses, shirts, and accessories. Most were made just for leisure, work, or play clothes. Women’s riding clothes remained traditional cuts with a bit more design and dazzles on shirts. Pants too often had piping, shaped pockets, and embroidered back pockets.
Fabrics used to make western clothing were gaberdine, rayon, cotton, and wool. In the mid to late 1940s, new leather and suede skirts, vests and jackets were worn.
Back on the homestead, amateur lady ranchers wore the first Lady Levi’s. The fashion world took notice, and in 1935, Vogue ran a story on dude ranch chic.
Western trousers for women were seen after WWII. Denim jeans that had been made by Levi’s before the 1940s replaced contrast stitch lines with screen printed faux stitch lines during the war. Levi’s did their part to conserve materials but did not sacrifice the Western style. More about women’s denim jeans history.
In 1948, Wrangler invented zip-up jeans for women! Classic cotton, chambray, and denim shirts with metal-rim pearl snap buttons also hit the market. So did hand tooled belts, trophy buckles, and ranger sets. Western jewelry — earrings, tie bars, cufflinks, rings, and watchbands — added more details. The bolo tie came about in the late 1940s. Cuffs and spurs had not changed much since the early 1900s — there were now just more varieties.
1950s Western Clothing
For women, western jeans fit the newer, slimmer silhouette of the 1950s pant. They were not skin tight like many 1950s pinup jeans are today. Instead, they followed the shape of the body starting at the high waist, full over the hips and tapered down the leg into a roll cuff. Many were lined in plaid flannel and sold with matching plaid shirts.
Learn more about the history of blue jeans for women and men.
Jeans were held up with belts by women and men. Of course they had to be western style as well. Hand tooled leather and silver belt buckles were worn by both men and women.
For the more traditional Western/Ranch wear clothing needs, women’s pants and shirts looked similar to menswear but in a more feminine cut.
Plaid shirts with snap buttons, fancy yokes, fringe, and V-front panels all made their way onto blouses and button down shirts. The non-jean pant was called the California ranch look with a full hip and a tapered, pressed leg in a heavy twill.
The Western design for women influenced some skirts and dresses. I am surprised there was no more influence in terms of the details we see on shirts and pants. Most of what I see comes in the form of pattern and color. Gingham checks are very Western, as well as certain plaids. Tiered skirts or circle skirts with Western folk prints and motifs are also reminiscent of the styles worn by many female country singers.
The western or country style became big news to women and men who enjoyed the revival of square dancing. Matching couples shirts were sold in sets. Matching women’s dresses and men’s shirts were another coordinated western look. Learn more here.
Buy Western Style Clothing
Shop women’s vintage and retro western style clothing, handmade western wear, reproduction rodeo clothing, inspired by, and western sewing patterns. Old west to 1970s. See everything we found plus a list of more places to shop online here.
- 100 Years of Western Wear by Tyler Beard, Jim Arndt
- Levi Strauss and Co by Lynn Downey
- How the West was Worn – Holly George-Warren, Michelle Freedman