Get Your Old West On: Real Cowboys and the Shirts They Wore

May 30, 2011 § 4 Comments

Much has been written about the rodeo and Hollywood cowboys who popularized the western shirt as we know it today.  But what did real working cowboys of the Wild West wear?

To understand the habits of the late 1800’s cowboy, we should look at this man’s origin.  At the conclusion of the Civil War, the south was suffering from severe economic hardship, and former soldiers moved west seeking work.  Union men headed west as well, putting their skills to use in a peacetime context.  Foster-Harris, in The Look of the Old West, with great appreciation for the martial origins of the western cowboy, describes union and southern military uniforms in intricate detail.  As he says, “The epoch begins with soldiers.”  They brought with them the style they had become accustomed to, and literally pieces of the uniform of their former profession:

“Here in the spring of 1865… released, were army corps of some of the fiercest fighting men the world had ever bred.  And ready and waiting for them was the wide wild, and wooly West…. Soldiers, shedding their blue and gray uniforms (but not all their old Army habits and enmities) to turn back to civilian pursuits; other soldiers still in uniform – or part of a uniform – swinging out to chase Indians, guard emigrants, watch over railroad builders, supervise land rushes, man lonely frontier outposts” (3-4).

Many of the denizens of the Wild West stayed in the soldiering profession, defending forts and performing various guard and rangering duties.  In fact, some cowboys of the civilian variety even purchased Army shirts from soldiers and post traders to complete their outfits (Trimble), taking advantage of the cheapness and availability.

These men transitioning from soldier to cowboy learned their trade from the South Texans currently in the occupation.  “In 1866, most of the cowboys were vaqueros [Mexican ranch hands] and African Americans.  Vaqueros were hired because they had experience with cattle, and some African Americans had worked on ranches in Texas and could ride and rope. Only about a third of the cowboys in 1866 were Anglo, and they followed the lead of the vaqueros and African Americans.  The Anglos were called ‘greenies’ or ‘green boys.”  Most of them were farmhands in their late teens or early twenties and many were illiterate.  Some became cowboys because they liked the outdoors and were lured by the excitement of working with wild animals [the longhorns].  But far more became cowboys because there were few jobs in Texas after the Civil War, and if greenies could ride a horse and shoot a gun, they met the minimum requirements for the job. …On a typical cattle drive, two-thirds of all the cowboys were new to the job, and most would quit after one drive” (Stanley, 10).

Photo courtesy of Discover Black Heritage

The image of the cowboy as hero is pervasive in American culture.  “He is still seen every day in music, dance, advertising, dress, sports, and the movies, and his history is memorialized in the Cowboy Hall of Fame.  He is almost always picked to lead parades.  Handsomely dressed on a well-groomed horse, he smiles and waves to the crowd” (Stanley, 1).   The actual existence of real cowboys couldn’t have been further off.  Far from the embroidered and beaded beefcakes leading the parades, the real cowboy was garbed in an outfit designed to endure hardship, protect him from the manifold dangers he encountered every day, and was severely limited by his lack of financial means.

The cowboy’s “clothes were both shaped and limited by his circumstances, the goods available to him and his choice of profession.” (DeWeese, “The Evolution of Western Wear”).  While the weather and his activities played a huge roll in the style and quality of his clothing, the greatest determining factor on his wardrobe was the fact that he was dirt poor. The cowboy was “limited, of course, by his financial circumstances.  Cowboys have never been particularly well-paid (a pair of boots could cost a month’s salary).  Consequently, early cowboys, especially the boys recruited to drive cattle north from Texas, were a motley crew whose wardrobes consisted of one set of clothes each” (Trimble).  A typical cowboy’s life was nasty, brutish, and unfortunately sometimes short.

“Who, then, was this character called the cowboy? At the start, he was Mexican and African American, and later he was an Anglo.  Typically, he was a greenie who was overworked, underpaid, often bored, and sometimes terrified.  He was sleepy.  He was sore…. Blew his pay on alcohol and other diversions.  If he didn’t die in the work, he quit after one drive.  He didn’t like being a cowboy…. [He] stayed with the work year after year because it was all he knew how to do and he lacked the skill or education for other kinds of work.  These men were resigned to a lowly existence of working for little more than food and clothing.  ‘I put in eighteen years on the trail,’ said an old cowboy, ‘and all I have to show for it is a pair of high-heeled boots and $4.80 worth of clothes, so there you are’ (Stanley, 76).

Their shirts, of course, suffered from the wearer’s poverty along with the rest of his kit.  “Cowboys didn’t much care which style of shirt they wore; they wore whatever they could afford or get their hands on.  In the 1880’s they even purchased Army shirts from soldiers and post traders.”  According to Foster-Harris, during the Civil War years a Union private made $13 a month, and a lowly cowhand was paid out about $125 at the end of a months-long trail drive (Stanley, 37).  This was a time when “Shirts could be had from $1 and up” (Foster-Harris, 106) and a dollar also bought you a box of paper collars and a pair of suspenders.  Also $1: “five real linen shirt fronts, or dickeys as they were called… These monstrosities tied around your neck like a baby’s bib, and buttoned to the shirt at the bottom.  Well starched, they had the horrid habit of flopping up in your face when a button let go” (98-99).

Weather also played a big role in what the cowboy wore on his upper regions.  Because the cowboy needed to be prepared for extremes, blazing hot sun or blood-freezing winds, temperature management was important.  Features on the shirt helped with this. “A cowboy always wore long sleeves with a three-to-five button placket in the front to keep the cold out in the winter” (Beard, 16).  And, “Yokes were a second layer of cloth meant to provide additional protection from the elements.”  (DeWeese, “What to Wear this Summer”).  Even off the trail, temperature management was necessary, and Foster-Harris discusses the perils of standing either too close to the stove, or too far.  Heating was, as he put it, “localized,” and a shirt that could be buttoned or unbuttoned as needed to help a cowboy regulate his body temperature in an era with no centralized heat.

Extreme seasonal temperatures called for appropriate fabrics.  Wintertime required something thick that would help the men retain body heat, and many sources mention the fabric necessary to survive an outdoor existence in cold temperatures.  Most cowboys wore shirts of wool, linsey-woolsey, or hickory.  According to that hoary and incontrovertible source, Wikipedia, “Linsey-woolsey,” as it is known in Europe, “is a coarse twill or plain-woven fabric woven with a linen warp and a woolen weft. Similar fabrics woven with a cotton warp and woolen weft in Colonial America were also called linsey-woolsey or wincey. The name derives form a combination of linen and woolen. This textile has been known since ancient times….Linsey-woolsey was valued for its warmth, durability, and cheapness, but not for its looks.”  Hickory was similar to denim, and was “A twill known for its excellent durability. It is warp striped and comes in a variety of colors. It usually is created with cotton and found in work clothes (TextileGlossary.com).  Bill Bryson, in At Home, gives a good description of the process of creating cotton-based cloths:

“Weaving involves interlacing two sets of strings at right angles to form a mesh.  The machine on which cloth was woven was a loom.  All that a loom does is hold one set of strings tight so that a second set can be fed through the first to make a weave.  The tight set of strings is called the warp.  The second, ‘active; set is called the weft—which is simply an old form of the verb weave.  Most everyday household cloths—sheets, handkerchiefs, and the like—are still made from this basic, straightforward type of weaving” (391).  Wool clothing was made in a similar fashion, but with yarns spun from sheep’s wool rather than cotton.

The relentless heat of the summer called for something lightweight and breathable.  Foster-Harris looks at it from the point of view of the Union cavalryman, from whose origins sprung the western cowboy, having to endure, due to military regulations, winter-appropriate clothing during sweltering heat of summer.

“But the benevolent government issues him just the flannel shirt and drawers, no undershirt; and if in summer he wore nothing at all under that jacket you have only to remember the thickness of the thing to understand why.  Not until January 1881 was the gray flannel shirt discontinued, blue woolen shirts piped in the color of the arm substituted, and an issue of three knitted undershirts a year provided to go with the drawers….True, the frontier Army had often only the sketchiest regard for uniform, and some of the officers did provide themselves with heavy blue double-breasted miner’s or lumberman’s shirts from civilian stocks.  ….  ‘Twas a stout heart, but little else, he wore under that jacket of blue.  Permission for the enlisted man to shed his blouse [jacket] and appear in shirt sleeves, with his suspenders right out in the open, came only with the blue shirts in 1881…. So, strictly speaking, only stories and plays dealing with the later Indian troubles … should have cavalrymen all neatly got up in blue shirts, white undershirts showing at rolled-up sleeves and open collars…” (3-4)

All that being said, “In summer it would often be a loudly striped ‘hickory’ or checked calico or gingham shirt, scrounged from somewhere”  (Foster-Harris, 3-4).  Hickory, incidentally, seems to be making a comeback.  Go ahead, Google it.

Image from SelfEdge.com

Beard confirms the lightweight fabrics: “In the summertime, pinstripe, collarless, Victorian-style shirts were preferred (16).

Cowpunching (so called for the need, from time to time, to incapacitate the marauding beasts with a swift punch to the head) was an active, physical profession requiring clothes that would lend themselves to safety and protection.  “Fancy embellishments on cowboy clothes would come slowly, grounded in practical considerations for structure or durability” (DeWeese, “The Evolution of Western Wear”).  The cowboying profession was one of the most dangerous around. “His clothing was torn and soiled, and his face was burned from the heat of the cattle.  Permanent boils and sores had formed on his rear end, so he rode in his saddle slightly off center.  His hands were coated with axle grease to cover cuts, which came from holding the reins so tightly during river crossings, and he might have a broken arm or cracked rib” (Stanley, 49-50).  If a cowboy didn’t get gored to death by a longhorn or trampled in a stampede, he might be shot by a hostile Native American, drowned in a river crossing, or killed in a gunfight.  At the very least, he was subjected to vicious thorns and brush, lack of clean washing and drinking water, dust, filth, vermin, and every imaginable discomfort. “A cowboy usually had one change of clothing that had to last for four months.  When possible, he bathed in streams, washed his clothes, and changed every few days” (Stanley, 41).  When a cowboy had the funds to purchase proper clothing, he shopped with an eye to what might protect him from the dangerous elements of his job.  Fashion was the furthest thing from his mind; safety and price were foremost.

“You may want to remember that the Western cowman was a conservative.  When he found something that worked pretty well, he hung on to it, because it was generally his life and money he was betting.  And until the ‘Bill shows’ and then the rodeos starting demonstrating what a helluva feller the cowboy was, he never even thought about duding himself up much, especially not out on the range.  Save for the working specialties he had to wear, like chaps and spurs and maybe a pistol, he wore just about what everybody else did in his time.   His working shirts were gray, or maybe blue.  Blacks, browns, grays, and blues were the standard colors, not only because they showed dirt less, but also because the dyes were pretty poor back in those days (Foster-Harris, 211).

Particular features of the shirts they wore were designed as a defense against the hostile environment.  “Every part of a cowboy’s wardrobe addressed some aspect of his job or environment, and his shirts were no exception.  Barrel cuffs protected the wrists and replaced leather cuffs worn by many cowboys working in brush country.  Snap buttons were a break-away safety feature if a cuff or shirt body was caught on a branch or bull’s horns” (DeWeese, “What to Wear this Summer”).

But despite the fact that cowboys required the sturdiest, most durable, and most practical gear, they still adhered to many of the rigid conventions of Victorian society.  “On the Old West frontier, Victorian clothes became a link to the civilized lives people had left behind.  The clothes were an absurdly refined contrast to the people’s rough and tumble existence in a wild and untamed land” (DeWeese, “The Victorian Influence”).

Cowboy Edward C. “Teddy Blue” Abbott comments on outfitting himself appropriately for both the macho Wild West lifestyle and the stuffy Victorian era: “I bought some new clothes and got [my] picture taken…. I had a new white Stetson hat that I paid ten dollars for and new pants that cost twelve dollars, and a good shirt and fancy boots. Lord, I was proud of those clothes!… “[When] my sister saw me, she said: ‘Take your pants out of your boots and put your coat on. You look like an outlaw.’ “I told her to go to hell. And I never did like her after that.”

Incidentally, “Teddy Blue” Abbott was one of the first cowboys to trail longhorns north from Texas.  Born in England in 1860, Teddy Blue immigrated to the U.S. with his parents in 1871 and settled in Nebraska.  That year he made his first trip up the trail at the tender age of 10.  In all he made three more trips up the trail to Montana, where he fell in love with a local girl, Mary Stuart, daughter of Montana pioneer Granville Stuart.  In Lewistown, Montana he started his own spread, raising a family and living out his life as a rancher.  His beloved autobiography, We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher, gives us detailed insight into life on the trail, including the cowboy’s wardrobe, as well as accounts of his friendships with many notable Old West historical figures, such as Charles M. Russell, notable Westerner and artist, and Martha Jane Cannary Burke (aka Calamity Jane), frontierswoman, professional scout, and associate of Wild Bill Hickok.

Image from Legends of America

Image from ArtHistory.About.com

Fabric

So let’s get down to brass tacks.  What did a real live, working, probably miserable, uncomfortable, poor, and dirty cowboy wear for a shirt?  What color did he wear?  We may think of singing cowboys wearing colorful satins with fancy embellishments.  But the working cowboy was most likely wearing something dark. Says Trimble, “The shirts could be solids, plaids or stripes.  Dark colors were preferred because they didn’t show the dirt, hence the term “thousand-mile shirt.” Marjorie Tallman, author of Dictionary of American Folklore, points to a different origin of the phrase: “The shirt of a railroad boomer [laborer] was often given this title because as an itinerant worker he traveled light and supposedly wore the same shirt for thousands of miles.”  However, the phrase seems to have been applied to the shirts of many in the laboring classes or those enduring the hardships of an outdoor lifestyle.  Hobos riding the rails in the 1930s were said to be wearing black satin “thousand mile shirts” that wouldn’t show stains, and H. Thomas Steele, author of The Hawaiian Shirt: Its Art and History (published, incidentally, by Abbeville Press, my former employer), refers to the “thousand mile shirts” worn by missionaries that were the precursors to the iconic Aloha shirts.

Dark colors also help retain heat during cold temperatures. “Although Floyd Bard recalled in 1890 that there was one cowboy working for the ‘76’ ranch who almost always wore a red shirt, the typical Wyoming cowboy wore a heavy woolen shirt of a dark or subdued color, especially during the winter” (Lindmier, 55-56).  The color of the working cowboy’s shirt especially stood out in contrast to the leisure classes.  “During the 1850s and early 1860s coloured shirts might be worn by working-class men, but gentlemen usually wore white. French printed cambrics in various coloured patterns were introduced for informal wear during the 1860s, and by the 1890s neat stripes in blue or pink were accepted as ‘perfectly good form’ even with frock coats, provided that the collar was white. Artistic, intellectual and unconventional gentlemen might wear shirts of solid colour; [author] William Morris had one dyed indigo blue for him in his own workshops” (Nunn).

Sources differ on what kind of fabric the typical cowboy shirt was made of, probably as much as the shirts did themselves.  But it is perhaps difficult to say there was a “typical” cowboy shirt since the vastness of the trailing operation required a huge workforce to work the cattle.  “On average, about two thousand cowboys trailed 300,000 longhorns in a typical year” between the years 1866 and 1885 (Stanley, 30).  Two thousand cowboys times twenty years is a lot of different cowboy shirts, even if you account for the fact that they probably only had one or two shirts each. By 1880 there were 160 cotton mills throughout the South, not to mentioned practically one mill per town in New England (Schultz).  A lot of different shirts could be made from all that cotton.  The cowboy himself may not have had much variety in the shirts that he owned, but by 1870 the Industrial Revolution had firmly taken hold of the U.S., and there was certainly variety to be had in the types and styles of shirts available for sale.

A decade earlier, though, the Union cavalryman, according to Foster-Harris, wore gray flannel under his jacket. If you were a raw recruit arriving in a Western outpost from the more civilized east, “Your shirt would doubtless be linen” (99).  According to Beard, the cowboy’s “shirt was usually hickory or linsey-woolsey, especially in the wintertime.  In the summertime, pinstripe, collarless, Victorian-style shirts were preferred” (16).  Lindmier tells us that “Some Wyoming cowboys wore the hickory shirt, with its checked pattern, especially those who had trailed cattle from rural Texas to Wyoming” (55-56).  Although later he states, somewhat contradictorily, that “The historic photographs illustrate that the predominant work shirt well into the 1920s was made of wool flannel and not cotton” (60).  But most of the authors point to wool, or its less affluent cousin from across the tracks, linsey-woolsey, as the fabric of choice.  “The shirt itself would be hickory or linsey-woolsey—or maybe wool in the wintertime, because the cold can penetrate worse at freezing point along the Bravo than it does at zero in the mountains (Foster-Harris, 203).  Trimble states that “Shirts in the late 1800s were generally wool or cotton pullovers.”  Cotton wins second prize as the shirt cloth most often referred to by authors writing books about cowboys.  Lindmier relies on photographic evidence to assert that cotton shirts are the shirts most frequently shown in old-timey photo-shoots of Wyoming cowboys, and they tended to be “to be white or pin-striped dress shirts.” (56-59).  Even the National Park Service, unwittingly attempting a rhymed couplet, claims cotton was the prevailing fabric: shirts were “long sleeved, cotton or wool. This kept the arms protected and cool.”

The least referenced types of shirts, but by far the most interesting, were buckskin.  The boys of cows were never very admiring of Native Americans, but at least in Laramie, “some cowboys wore buckskin shirts during the cold winters” (Lindmier, 59), which apparently were rather uncomfortable in the summer. Buckskin was iconic in many ways, and many famous frontiersman wore entire suits of it, but buckskin tends not to be favored by cowboys to any great extent.  Although a “hodgepodge of cultural and stylistic traditions converged, and frequently clashed, on the Western frontier to create the original cowpuncher’s outfit,” and although the leather shirts “worn by American Indians were adopted by early European adventurers,” there was no love lost between the cowboys and the Native American tribes whose home the cowboys were trespassing.  To put it mildly, a lasting enmity existed.  “Cowboys had little use for Indian ways; they opted for European uses of leather for boots, belts, and gloves and, occasionally, vests and overcoats,” but the buckskin shirt was never widely adopted (DeWeese, “Evolution of Western Wear”).

The Collar

Everyone’s favorite topic when it comes to authentic cowboy shirts seems to be the collar, which strikes me as unusual, since the collar was rarely actually attached to the working cowboy’s shirt. “Dress shirts were often made without collars because men wore ‘paper collars’ that they attached around the neck.  A cowboy who purchased a collarless shirt might not have bothered to put on the paper collar” (Trimble).  Collars seemed to be reserved for special occasions when more formality was required, an opportunity that probably didn’t present itself all that often to the man of the open range.

“It wasn’t until after 1910 that these shirts came with permanently affixed collars.  This style of shirt had a short collar that was closed with a stud and over which was to be placed a removable linen or celluloid collar.  The removable collar could be of three varieties: standing, full fold over, or partially folded.  Most cowboys wore these shirts buttoned fully to the neck, but they normally left off the collars.  The cotton work shirts which were available differed from dress shirts in that they had attached collars.  Cotton shirts are generally seen in photographs taken during the warmer seasons or when cowboys dressed up for studio photographs” (Lindmier).

Incidentally, modern day photography was invented in the early 1800’s, and widespread use began occurring during the Civil War years when Matthew Brady and his staff took over 7,000 war scene photographs.  In the 1870s Congress launched ambitious plans to map the southwest to determine routes for wagon roads and military posts (Grant).  Travelling with one of the surveys was photographer Timothy O’Sullivan, whose thousands of photographs of the Old West provide evidence of life on the frontier and were among some of the firsts to record images of Native Americans in the Southwest.  Also accompanying one of the surveys was photographer William H. Jackson, whose photography was similarly prolific.  “After retiring from government service, Jackson continued to photograph the West out of a Denver studio, and in 1899 he became a leader in the picture postcard business as director of the Detroit Publishing Company” (Hearst Museum).  Photographers such as O’Sullivan and Jackson are responsible for the vast amount of evidence we have of the cowboy’s wardrobe.

Image from Golden State History

But more about the collar, perhaps a cowboy’s only nod to formality.  The many styles and varieties of collars as they evolved throughout the later half of the nineteenth century are discussed in great detail at “The Victorian Web.”  While it is true that although the cowboy’s life was severely constrained by his dirty and dangerous job, his dress was subjected to the same mores as the rest of the Victorians, regardless of the fact that they lived in the lawless, chaotic, and sometimes brutal Old West.  “Victorian style was all about modesty and decorum.  High collars and necklines, layers of superfluous fabric and frilly accents were common characteristics; you wouldn’t dare wear unbuttoned collars or rolled up sleeves”  (DeWeese, “The Victorian Influence”).  Unless, perhaps, you were a cowboy.

One can become deeply enmeshed in the topic of collars, but because of the breadth and depth of information available, for the purposes of our discussion, we’ll look at collars only as they relate to our friend the cowboy.  The ties that adorned them are discussed in just as much detail, so we will avoid that topic altogether, except as it relates to the cowboy’s use of the much-fabled bandanna

The bandanna gets a lot of play in the cowboy outfit sources.  Cowboys generally ate a lot of dust, and the bandanna had a big role as a filter over the cowboy’s nose and mouth to help at the very least keep his airways clear so he didn’t suffocate in the wake of 3,000 longhorns trouping across the American desert.  The bandanna was generally the only splash of color in his otherwise drab outfit.  There’s even the apocryphal yet unverified story that one enterprising cowboy sewed his bandana across the shoulders of his shirt, thus fashioning the very first yoke style.  “But don’t let the romanticists kid you, the main reason cowboys wore bandannas was because most collars, if any, on early shirts looked like hell and left an expanse of turkey neck bare to whatever and sundry.  With decent collars, the bandanna either got tucked inside to make the open collar look a littler dressier, or it went into a pocket where it belonged” (Foster-Harris, 203).

The humble attached collar was at home on a workingman’s shirt.  “Men’s shirt collars were generally removable until the 1920s but Western shirts had sew-on collars from the beginning” (Weil, 63).  An attached collar, although common on a laborer’s shirt, was not a foregone conclusion, was apparently nothing much to write home about, and had a rather quotidian, working-class status.  The collar of a soldier’s shirt was, says Foster-Harris, if it existed at all, “was an atrocity, merely a foldover of the material at the neckband” (15).  These half-baked, “soft foldover collars” (Trimble) were something of an afterthought on the laboring man’s shirt, and one wonders why the seamstresses and tailors of the day bothered to add them at all.  “Wool shirts usually had roll-down collars that were permanently attached and were normally worn closed to the top button.” (Lindmier, 55-56).

The most humorous discussion of collars can be attributed to the colorful Mr. Foster-Harris in his portrait of a recent arrival to the Old West:

“But by now, the seventies, your shirt collar would be turned down, not sticking up to poke you in the eye as in the sixties, and you’d likely be tucking the ends of your black silk cravat, tied bow-tie fashion, under the tips of the collar…. Your collar, particularly out here away from laundries, might just be paper, to be worn once and thrown away.  You bought these paper collars by the dozen and, if your eyesight wasn’t very good, perhaps they did look something like linen.  They were cheap too.  [Montgomery] Ward’s would sell you five boxes of paper collars, plus a pair of suspenders, all for $1.  The suspenders, I feel sure, were not paper….If you didn’t like paper collars and cuffs to wear with them, you could, so help me, get steel, flexible, enameled collars, which I suppose you put on with a monkey wrench” (99).

Don’t even get Foster-Harris started about celluloid collars.  They were flammable.  But easy to clean (99).

Cuffs

Cuffs are an iconic feature of the modern western shirt.  Often in a contrasting color or fabric, they come in a variety of styles, including, but not limited to: shotgun, recessed shotgun, modified shotgun, knifeblade shotgun, wing-style, sharkfin, barrel, French, and standard (Weil, 65).  “Dress-shirt cuffs were hard-starched and sometimes detachable” (Foster-Harris, 99).  Like other parts of the shirt, and the greenies on the trail, cuffs were not exempt from hard work and pulling guard duty. “Barrel cuffs protected the wrists and replaced leather cuffs worn by many cowboys working in brush country” (DeWeese, “What to Wear this Summer”).  Cuffs, sewn onto the shirt, are clearly a direct descendant of gauntlets, which were “Gloves extending above the wrist for extra protection.”  According to Beard, “gauntlets were worn by men and women for everyday work, rodeos, and Wild West shows” (19).

Their practical purpose might have origins stylistically as well.  Weil speculates that “The multiple buttons and snaps may have come from earlier military jacket or suit jacket design.”  Foster-Harris would probably agree; he dedicates umpteen pages to the topic of the quantity, quality, and style of each and every button sewn on each and every military “blouse,” worn by each and every rank, both Yankee and Reb, the very men he considers to be the forerunners of the late 19th century cowmen.  In fact, the size of the cuff in modern western shirts seems to have expanded exponentially up the sleeve, clear on up to the elbow at times, for the very purpose of attaching MORE buttons: “Western cuffs tend to be larger than conventional ones to accommodate the extra fasteners” (Weil, 65).  This whole military button issue, is of course a red herring.  Real cowboys probably didn’t give a fig about buttons, and despite their military origins, probably cared even less about regulation uniforms. Protecting their wrists from thorns and rope burns was probably more of a concern.  Weil concedes that “Western cuffs may have another history altogether: cowboys since the turn of the century sometimes wore removable leather cuffs, similar to the gauntlet or gloves.  They served a decorative purpose as well as a protective one; many were embellished with tooling and studs” (65).

Safety measure, fashion statement, or dangerous distraction?  Experts disagree.  Gauntlets could sport a wide range of decoration, including beads and fringe.  Because of some of the artistry exhibited on later examples of gauntlets, they capture the interest of the Westernwear fashion chroniclers such as Beard: “Gloves and gauntlets were made of deerskin, horsehide, elk, or goatskin to protect the wearer’s hands from rope burns and the cold.  In northern regions, heavy mittens made from buffalo, bear, wolf, and other fur-bearing critters were a must for winter.  The hand was leather and the lining usually wide-welt corduroy or wool.  Many cowboys wore leather wrist cuffs, whose popularity peaked in the 1930s” (Beard, 18).  There seems to be some disagreement over the widespread use of gauntlets:  “Few used gauntlets, according to [cowboy] Ben Bird, as they might become tangled when roping and ‘all sorts of stuff would get caught in them.’  Yet [another cowboy] Hough states that many cowboys wore gauntlets ‘made of the finest buckskin, which will not be injured by wetting.  It will probably be tanned white and cut with a deep cuff or gauntlet, from which will hang a little fringe’” (Lindmier, 67-68.) Weil, too, considers whether the cuff could become a liability: “It may be that because they were tighter fitting, they were less likely to get caught during active use” (Weil, 65).  Clearly though, gauntlets enjoyed some popularity, because Joyce Szabo and Steven L. Grafe wrote a whole book about them called Real Western Wear: Beaded Gauntlets from the William P. Healey Collection.

Later, Lindmier prevaricates on whether cuffs served any practical purpose or were just a tough-guy fashion trend: “Cuffs were leather wrist gauntlets presumably used to protect the cowboy from rope burns.  A study of historic photographs and written accounts indicates that these items were developed sometime in the late 1880s but did not become very popular until the 1890s.  In fact, since it is unsure what their practical purpose was, cuffs may have been merely a fashion trend.  Surviving examples indicate that early varieties laced and buckled on the wrists while twentieth century cuffs generally had snaps” (93).

That the cuff and gauntlet both played a role in protecting the wrist seems obvious, but Foster-Harris thinks they might have served a more stealthy purpose: “Typically, the cuffs of the seventies were much wider than today’s, making possible the occasional gambler’s sleeve holdout device for extra cards, or various arrangements of concealed weapons, usually a derringer or knife (99).

Sleeves?  They were of course long.  For practical purposes—they kept the arms protected and cool, as we’ve learned from the National Parks Service—and because this was the Victorian era, and showing skin was a big no-no. Not only were the sleeves long, sometimes they were TOO long: “The sleeves might run long—they weren’t cut to size until about 1911 – and that’s why cowboys wore elastic garters on the upper arms” (Trimble).

The Shirtfront

Up until mid-century, your non-cowboys of the Victorian period, your gentleman, let’s say, almost always had something going on in the front of the shirt.  In Foster-Harris’s profile of a gentleman arriving in the west, as yet unsullied by the dust and grime of the cowboying lifestyle, he has this fictional yet uptight easterner wearing a shirt that “pulled over your head, as usual, had lots of tail but no pockets.  It might or might not have ruffles on the front” (99).  While “The frilling for evening finally disappeared completely by the 1860s, the fronts being plain, stiffly starched and fastened with decorative studs,” the shirts of working men continued to sport features in the front for quite some time, some of which are still in existence in the modern western shirt.  Take, for instance, the aforementioned dickey. “The dickey (or dicky), a shirt-front with an attached collar of starched linen worn over a flannel shirt, was available throughout the period, though never worn by a gentleman; it was often a source of humour or ridicule”  (Nunn).  Apparently the dickey was as embarrassing then as it would be some 120 years later when a certain vintage clothing article writer had to wear it as part of her marching band uniform in the 7th grade.  But I digress.

For a man of limited means in the old west, the dickey was a useful and economic alternative to a proper shirtfront. “You could get five real linen shirt fronts, or dickeys as they were called” for the low, low price of $1.  But as Foster-Harris recounts, they were a bit unstable and prone to wardrobe malfunctions.  And speaking of bibs, dickeys were a kissing cousin to the bib-front.  Variously attributed to warmth or protection, the bib-front was often sported by the likes of John Wayne, Gene Autry, and even Michael Jackson.  But while we might like to imagine its historical origins, Lindmier hints that cowboys might not have even worn them: “Bib-front shirts are also represented in historic photographs of Wyoming cowboys, but this type of shirt appears to be less than common, with bibs smaller than those common today.  This style seldom appears in historic photographs prior to the late 1890s.  Mail order catalogs, such as Montgomery Ward, Bloomingdale’s, Sears and Roebuck, and E. Butterick, do not show bib-front or miner’s style shirts until after the turn of the century” (59).  Shirtfronts of all kinds seem to have come and gone in the history of fashion, but the western shirt is unique for having retained the double-layer of cloth consistently throughout its existence, usually in the form of a yoke.  Whether the yoke, or any shirtfront, had any purpose besides decorative is debatable, but it did have the benefit of making the cowboy look a little tougher: “Visually, yokes also broaden the shoulders and enhance the wearer’s physique” (DeWeese, “The Evolution of Western Wear”).  Everything else we’ve learned about the cowboy’s hardknock lifestyle defies their heroic stereotype, so perhaps they’ve earned the little bit of swagger a pair of broad shoulders might convey upon them.

Image from Wikipedia

The Lone Ranger wore a pullover.  In fact, so did most cowboys, as well as just about everybody.  All the experts agree, and so does the photographic evidence.  First worn by soldiers, “Shirts of the period, incidentally, all pulled on over the head” (Foster-Harris, 15).  Says Lindmier, “Most work shirts between 1870 and the late 1890s were of the pullover style; that is, buttoning or lacing partly down the front” (55-56).  And also Trimble: “Shirts in the late 1800s were generally wool or cotton pullovers.”  Beard even counts the buttons, however few there might be: between three and five (16).  Warmth seems to be a consideration in the lack of placket, and the cold wind could certainly sneak through ones buttons, but the National Parks Service also cites thrift and comfort as possible reasons for the abbreviated placket: “Most had a button placket, but not all the way down; fewer buttons to lose and more comfortable when tucked in. Cowboys wore shirts buttoned up to the neck”.  The inconvenience of having to struggle with pulling the shirt over the head clearly did not outweigh the other factors.  There is a certain logic to the economic argument; buttons and lacings were probably an extra expense. Fewer trappings probably made the shirt cheaper to construct and purchase.  And since most cowboys often went several months without a bath, removing the shirt probably wasn’t their primary concern.  Eventually, however, these pullover shirts gave way to the full button placket.  “During the late 1890s, full button plackets on shirts appeared, although they were not frequently illustrated in mail order or fashion catalogs and are rarely seen in historic photographs.  By 1910, however, these shirts began to be more popular for dress and work (Lindmier, 59-60).  And, “by 1921, clothing catalogs indicate that most shirts buttoned completely down the front and few pullover shirts remained on the market (Lindmier, 60).  Incidentally, the word “placket” derives its origin from various words having to do with breastplates and other hard coverings over the chest and stomach.

Did the cowboy’s shirt have pockets?  Not usually. “Most shirts between 1870 and 1910 either had no breast pockets or only one” (Lindmier, 55-56).  That’s what the vest was for.  The lack of pockets was not surprising since technically, in the stuffy Victorian era, one’s shirt was not supposed to be outerwear.  Which leads me to my next point…

“During the first half of the nineteenth century, shirts were considered undershirts.  To be properly attired in this time period, a shirt was covered by a vest or coat” (Lindmier, 60).  So basically, any cowboy sporting a shirt with nothing covering it, regardless of the hot Texas sun beating down on his back, was basically running around in his underwear by the standards of the day.  According to DeWeese, “In polite society, a gentleman never removed his coat in public” (“The Victorian Influence”).  Clearly the trail was not considered polite society, but for that matter the cowboy was almost certainly not considered a gentleman.  While DeWeese claims, “an Old West cowboy’s basic getup consisted of… a nondescript shirt under a waistcoat or vest” (“Evolution of Western Wear”), a wide variety of social mores were violated in the chaotic and lawless Old West, and it’s hard to imagine a cowboy opting for propriety when working under the brutal conditions he was subjected to.  Foster-Harris suggests that the cowboy WAS running around in his underwear, and for a very good reason, too:

“The old-time cowboy might not have had any undershirt on at all.  Even in the towns, back in those days, the heating arrangements were pretty crude and you might say localized: big blazing fireplaces or pot-bellied stoves that cooked you quick if you stood close, while over on the other side of the same room you could have a fast freeze.  So clothing was arranged so that you could put it on or take it off, button or unbutton, without having to retire to your boudoir to do so.  The cowboy might not have any undershirt, but his overshirt would probably be as thick as a modern overcoat, and with a double-breasted shield front to boot” (Foster-Harris, 215).

The cowboy was both a product of his time, as well as the antithesis.  He was of his society, but at the same time an outsider, or worse, even an outlaw.  But by virtue of being—by and large—poor as dirt, he wasn’t always subject to the strict guidelines of “modesty and decorum” that characterized Victorian style (DeWeese, “The Victorian Influence”).  High collars and necklines, collars buttoned up and sleeves buttoned down, these were affectations of the city-dweller, not a man virtually living on his horse for three to four months at a stretch with the knowledge of his kind’s low mortality rate staring him in the face day after day (most likely mooing, possibly pawing the ground with its hooves, and most certainly pointing its sharp, lethal horns at him with a murderous gleam in the eye.)  The cowboy’s wardrobe exemplifies the Victorian influence by identifying exactly what the cowboy was not: a gentleman.

Works Cited

Abbott, Edward C. We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher.  Farrar & Rhinehart, 1939.

Beard, Tyler. 100 Years of Western Wear, Salt Lake City: Gibbs-Smith, 1993.

Bryson, Bill.  At Home.  New York: Doubleday, 2010.

DeWeese, G. Daniel, “The Evolution of Western Wear,” True West Magazine, 7/20/09, <http://www.truewestmagazine.com/stories/the_evolution_of_western_wear/1231/>. Web.

DeWeese, G. Daniel, “The Victorian Influence,” True West Magazine, 8/31/10, <http://www.truewestmagazine.com/stories/the_victorian_influence/1590/>. Web.

DeWeese, G. Daniel, “What to Wear This Summer,” True West Magazine, 5/24/10, <http://www.truewestmagazine.com/stories/what_to_wear_this_summer/1497/>. Web.

Dictionary of Fiber & Textile Technology. Charlotte: KOSA, 1999.

Foster-Harris, The Look of the Old West: A Fully Illustrated Guide. Viking Press, 1955.

Grant, Margaret et al. “Photography of the American West: 1850-1885: An Online Resource Guide.” <http://americanwestphoto.wordpress.com/>. Web. 5/31/11

Hearst Museum. “The World in a Frame: Photographs from the Great Age of Exploration, 1865-1915.” <http://hearstmuseum.berkeley.edu/exhibitions/photo/jackson.html>. Web. 5/31/11.

Lindmier, Tom and Steve Mount, I See by Your Outfit: Historic Cowboy Gear of the Northern Plains, Glendo, WY: High Plains Press, 1996.

Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center. “EC ‘Teddy Blue’ Abbott. <http://www.montanacowboyfame.com/155901.html>. Web. 5/31/11.

National Parks Service. “Cowboys.” <http://www.nps.gov/archive/grko/cowboys.htm.> Web. 5/31/11.

Nunn, Joan. ” Victorian Men’s Fashions, 1850-1900: Shirts and Neckties.” Victorian Web. <http://www.victorianweb.org/>. Web. 5/31/11.

Schultz, Stanley K. and William P. Tishler. “The New South,” American History 102. < http://us.history.wisc.edu/hist102/weblect/lec02/02_02.htm>. Web. 5/31/11.

Stanley, Jerry. Cowboys & Longhorns: A Portrait of the Long Drive, New York: Crown Publishers, 2003.

H. Thomas Steele. The Hawaiian Shirt: Its Art and History. New York: Abbeville Press, 1984.

Tallman, Marjorie.  Dictionary of American Folklore. Philosophical Library, 1959.

TextileGlossary.com. “Hickory.” < http://www.textileglossary.com/terms/hickory-cloth.html>. Web. 5/31/11.

Trimble, Marshall. “Cowboys’ Collared Shirts,” True West Magazine, 11/1/07, <http://www.truewestmagazine.com/stories/cowboys_collared_shirts/87/>. Web.

Weil, Steven E. and Daniel DeWeese.  Western Shirts: A Classic American Fashion.  Layton: UT: Gibbs Smith Publishers, 2004.

Wikipedia.com. “Linsey-woolsey.” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linsey-woolsey>. Web. 5/31/11.

Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,

§ 4 Responses to Get Your Old West On: Real Cowboys and the Shirts They Wore

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Get Your Old West On: Real Cowboys and the Shirts They Wore at Vintrowear.

meta

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 227 other followers

%d bloggers like this: