Going in Style: The Western shirt: Style to fit the fabric of life
In its purest form, Western Americana style is inextricably connected to the working utility of the cowboy.
Each article of clothing serves a function, generally for protection.
A hat is worn to protect the head and face.
The bandana, etymologically from the Hindi word badhnati, meaning, he ties, is worn around the neck.
A bandana of cotton or silk, in cowboy parlance called neckerchief, wild rag, muffler or wipe, is used for a variety of knotty purposes. Tied around the neck it is sun protection, over the beak for a breathing filter, a sling for wounded arm, or fastening the legs of calves for branding. The origin of the American bandana is ascribed to Martha Washington, a patriotic cloth of anti-British propaganda she encouraged during the Revolutionary War (1770s).
A long sleeve shirt typically made of wool-cotton blend, wool vest with pockets for holding personal effects (tobacco, watch, pencil and pad), a slicker for stormy weather, brown or blue denim pants and boots complete the outfit.
Nothing flashy. Hence, the adage, cowboys dress down.
This is by no means unabridged or historically verbatim. Rather, a condensed version of how western Americana style fits into our cultural fabric.
Of course, to consider how the Western look entered the consumerist mainstream, you must study the entertainment industry.
From rodeo performers to Hollywood to Nashville, an outrageous veneer was fabricated — fancy embroidery on shirts, gabardine fabrics, leather fringes and the ostentatious like — traveled back east to folks willing to buy that look.
Personalities such as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Dale Evans sported some mighty fine examples of garish Western wear.
One of the first Western shirts I bought was black with white flowers. The placket and gauntlets were made of pearl button snaps. The pattern was a simple Japanese floral print. It was handsome, not garish.
I often thought of it as an “east meets west” shirt because of the motif, and it was likely made in some Asian sweatshop.
On the most conventional level, driven by the desires that a fellow has in his mid-20s, it was an attempt to impress young ladies with my unique sense of style. My natural good looks and intellect were proving to be too limited.
You see, living in Pittsburgh in the early 2000s, few men were wearing Western shirts. In a trick of the mind, I figure being a stylish outlier would improve my dating chances.
This postulate was false.
And like many well-intended experiments that fail, it yielded more valuable observations.
It showed the superficiality of vanity, and paradoxically, it sparked a personal collection of Western Americana attire.
These days, for much different reasons, I still try to keep it snappy.
Look for more of Kevin Carey’s thoughts on style and its practical and aesthetic influence on life in upcoming issues of Trending.