How Cowboy Style Made Its Way Back to the Fashion Frontier
Valentine’s Day, 2017. The day of Raf Simons’ first Calvin Klein showdown. No one knew quite what to expect, so expecting something, at the very least, was all they could do. It turned out a tribute to all things America was in the cards. Not a riff on Make America Great Again hats or a stars and stripes concoction, but a newfangled vision of the Wild West.
Optimistic sheriff shirts and metal-tipped cowboy boots came first. A blood-stained palette entered the Western lexicon next, flooding the horse-appropriate footwear with a sense of horror. Then Simons moved quickly to the other side. To a post-apocalyptic world that was less heavy on the cowboy front, but still infused with subtle tropes like prairie skirts. Finally, his raison d'être: a literal graduation of his Americana vision. Mortarboard caps mixed with Jaws symbology and a hint of Western fringing.
All of that occurred in the space of 19 months, eventually filtering through to other designers, fast fashion brands, Instagram influencers and the average person. Now it seems everyone—whether they know it or not—is subverting what it means to be American through their wardrobes.
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Adopting a uniform worn by historical outlaws is perfectly apt for 2019 as people across the world have become ardent critics of the Trump regime. When his wife wears a tailored red Calvin Klein shirt as a symbol of US pride, presidential detractors wear it too. But ironically, of course. Cowboy boots, hats and more pay homage to a bygone (or maybe non-existent) era; a simpler time where, as Hollywood portrayed, good always conquered evil. Simons amplified that double meaning. The creators of the cowboy look, however, had something much more lucid in mind. So how did the style grow to gain such significance?
Cowboys reigned in the 1800s. Their uniform was practical. Chaps were there to protect legs from cacti and other thorny plants. Hats were designed to stay on a speeding rider's head. Many elements were, in fact, borrowed from other countries. The famous Stetson derived from the sombreros of Mexican cowboys (known as vaqueros). USA-dwelling cowboys diminished its size a little, adding leather or horsehair strings to keep it in place. Even the shoes came from another nation: It was British Wellington boots that first adorned the feet. Later on, a Cuban heel and higher shaft were added to that silhouette, forming the cowboy boot that we know and love today. Womenswear, too, was simple with fringing prairie skirts and gingham among the most popular styles.
Things only became more elaborate much later on. Boots and shirts were decorated in order to stand out at rodeos. Celebrity culture hyped items that were never part of US cowboys’ looks. Take the poncho, for instance. Borrowed from South American gauchos, it became a staple of Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti Westerns. The rhinestone-encrusted Nudie suit—designed by country and western tailor Nudie Cohn—was similarly all for show. It was Elvis, not a cowboy, that took the look to new heights, paving the way for the over-the-top style of modern stars such as Post Malone.
In between the King and today’s genre-bending musicians came the icons of the noughties. Western kitsch was their choice too. Whether it was Britney and Justin’s denim-on-denim-on-denim ensembles or Destiny’s Child’s flesh-flashing fringing and bedazzled hats, trashy fashion added the first layer of irony to cowboy style. As you can see, practicality had been replaced with a desire to stand out from the crowd.
But fashion being fashion wanted to tip the scales. Soon, minimalist elements of the Wild West became a festival staple. Favored for their comfort and ease, neutral-hued boots adorned the likes of Sienna Miller and Kate Moss. The runway only served to magnify this. In 2014, Tom Ford’s calf-high designs oozed a simplicity that hadn’t been seen in the cowboy realm for some time.
And then came Vetements. Demna Gvasalia has long been accused of designing purely for irony. When he was a child, he was enamored with American pop culture. On the surface, exaggerated prairie dresses, dramatic chaps and a collaboration with historic cowboy boot brand Lucchese appear to be a love letter to that youth. But when he began injecting Balenciaga with slogans stating “think big” and “no borders”, it was clear that some degree of cynicism was at work.
“Irony is both about making you smile or laugh, but it can also be quite painful because it asks questions,” Gvasalia admitted in an interview with Vestoj. Like what is the real meaning of patriotism? Can you separate a country from its leader? Can you forgive and forget past and future actions in the name of celebrating your nation? Should you?
It may seem a stretch to associate cowboy fashion with all of the above, but it’s something that today’s designers are doing with success. As Robin Givhan wrote for the Washington Post, Shayne Oliver’s Spring 2017 collection for Hood by Air used double-facing Western boots as a metaphor for the direction America is going in. Is it forwards or backwards? The debate rages on.
Oliver isn’t the only one hawking a deeper meaning. Under John Galliano, more than one Margiela show has featured deconstructed cowboy boots, as if tearing something apart is the only way to reveal its true colors. A powerful Pyer Moss show and campaign seemed like an uncomplicated declaration, but opened eyes to the cultural disappearance of 19th-century black cowboys and their modern-day counterparts.
Batsheva Hay’s prairie dresses—a look that has carried over from 2018—appear to restrain their wearers but are lapped up by free individuals. And fast fashion’s penchant for cow print, bolo ties and Coachella-esque cowgirls made the look accessible to all.
Ultimately, cowboy fashion’s beauty lies in its ability to be whatever the wearer desires. It can be patriotic or the complete opposite; it can be brazenly loud or formidably quiet; it can make a statement about the past, present or future. In a highly charged political climate, what could appeal more?