Western wear. 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 western wear met mainstream fashion and created new styles. It is a part of fashion history that seems to get ignored, yet how could we? Flipping through my 1950s catalogs, I see almost every men’s and women’s shirts and jeans had details clearly taken from working class/ranch-hand/western United States traditional clothing. Why was it so popular? When did these new style begin? Why were the 1950s the hey day for vintage western clothing? Let’s take a look and see.
1930s and 1940s Western Clothing
The 1930s 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 “Westerns” 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 and hat. The clothing industry catered to this with replica western clothing for children long before the trend took off for adults.
Outside of TV, live rodeo was a major interest starting in the late 1920s. Both men and woman were rodeo stars with their fast mounts, faster quick draw and 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 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.
A popular vacation for the middle classes was to a working dude ranch, where vacationers dressed the part. Some loved their clothes so much they continued to wear them at home.
Rodeo cowgirls Tad Lucas and Lucyle Richards were frequently in the spot light. Their vast wardrobes influenced what 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.
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 were hand tooled belts, trophy buckles and ranger sets. Western jewelry — earrings, tie bar, 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.
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 Wane 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 has 4-5 buttons, usually snaps. Shirts came in the very popular ’50s plaid as well as vertical stripes.
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, aka James Dean and Marlon Brando. Everyone was wearing blue jeans and jean jackets. Levi’s changed their marketing campaign away from cowboys to teens going off to collage and families relaxing at home. They also changed their line of blue jeans from “Dude Ranch Duds” or “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.
For women, the 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.
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 yoke and 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 full hip and 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.
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