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The eras of cowboy fashion: from the 19th century to Beyoncé and Louis Vuitton

The eras of cowboy fashion: from the 19th century to Beyoncé and Louis Vuitton


Every few years he rides into town on a shiny white horse with all the mixed mythology of frontier America crammed into his saddlebags: cowboy core. We saw this most recently in late March, when Beyoncé shook up country music with the release of Cowboy Carter. This country-influenced album, still at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, not only lit up the BeyHive, but simultaneously unleashed a torrent of cowboy style tropes, memes, messages, and images.

What is this? What does that mean? Who does it belong to? How do you arrive at a unique meaning of the word cowboy when the stylistic variations range from western to modern to glitzy to preppy to Saturday night buckaroo line dancing to black?

The notion of the real has always haunted the figure of the cowboy, said Josh Garrett-Davis, curator of Western American history at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. There is this paradoxical relationship with authenticity.

Nowhere is this clearer than when fashion enters the picture. One season, a designer like Pharrell Williams debuts for Louis Vuitton with a predictable ode to Paris and Frenchness. The next day, he presented a collection greeted as the Wild West meets melting pot America that features every imaginable trope of a post-war cowboy kitsch purse: fringe, cowhide suitcases, embroidered rodeo jackets (in the style from the creator of Nashville Manuel Cuevas), turquoise snaps on shirts, steel-toed boots and 10-gallon hats.

Summon an image of vast murals inside the Vuitton Foundation depicting John Ford's country. Then populate the landscapes of Big Sky with models representative of a new narrative, updated to include the Native, Mexican, and Black cowboys who, in reality, made up a significant portion of the cowboy workforce, such as said Dr. Garrett-Davis.

Part recovery and part virtue signaling, the Vuitton show was also downright trendy. And it was just one of many recent forays into a revival of the cowboy aesthetic. Cowboy style has surfaced seemingly everywhere, in images ranging from Gucci ads featuring Snoop Dogg in a satin cowboy suit and string tie to a new image in M, Le Monde's style magazine, featuring Featured Amber Valletta posed like a hardscrabble ranch girl. from Richard Avedons' series of portraits In the American West.

Even Dapper Dan, the Harlem clothier famous for its hip-hop-tinged logos, got in on the act. For a new Gap collaboration, Dapper Dan and Daniel R. Day have swapped their awesome Gucci collabs for stuff you might expect to see at Cheyenne Frontier Days: denim button-downs, cotton Oxfords embroidered with 10-gallon hats .

We were some of the first cowboys, Dapper Dan said in a statement on collaboration. But we are also the faces of the world to come. We are the urban cowboys.

Changes in our understanding of cowboy demographics are only part of what makes the latest iteration of cowboy style worth noting, said Sonya Abrego, design historian and author of Westernwear: Postwar American Fashion and Culture . I'm always trying to correct the idea that Western clothing is specifically designed for riding and functional work, she said.

Although cowboy clothing was true workwear during the early westward expansion and continues to play a functional role in equipment worn by ropers, steer wrestlers, and bronc riders on the rodeo circuit, according to Paul Woody, the Professional's marketing director. Rodeo Cowboys Association is just as often a costume: a surefire way to telegraph and showcase Americanness.

Ask for a symbol of the United States, Dr. Garrett-Davis said, and what most people come up with is the cowboy.

Oddly enough, however, the gear that real range riders wore bore little resemblance to the outfits we use to symbolize the cowboy. Real cowboys of the 19th century typically wore heavy canvas pants, bowlers, and wore rawhide chaps as armor against the thorny vegetation and general dirt of the job.

You'll notice there's not a speck of dust on Beyoncé, Dr. Abrego observed wryly. Of course there isn't. As a pop music goddess, Beyoncé's job is to apotheosize the iconography of the Wild West, not to throw herself into the muck. And in this, she engages in the patriotic cosplay intrinsic to much cowboy-core, an outfit developed not on the range but from the flashy costumes once worn by entertainers like the Buffalo Bills Wild West Show.

What I love about the latest iteration is how it creates space for young queer kids or people of color to explore and interpret recombining elements in different ways for different eras, Dr. Abrego said. , and to send the message that the West was much more diverse than the images we have always seen.




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