Women's Western Wear

Women’s western wear is not unique unto itself. It is a derivative of the men’s styles that originated in the 1800s. But as it has evolved, it has certainly taken on its own identity, and the lines and styles have indeed become quite feminine.

Today’s women’s western wear, as modeled by country singers and rodeo performers, is, in fact, its own category of fashion.

Western Wear's Beginnings

It began in the American West.

The cowboy fashion has been a key element of western culture since the 1800s. America’s Wild West, considered the golden age for the cowboy, began in the mid-1800s. But it truly began to flourish after the end of the Civil War as people picked up their belongings and started the trek westward.

The era, defined by cowboys, ranchers, farmers, and, of course, outlaws, saw the creation of western wear as a practical form of attire---born out of necessity. The living and working conditions led to the creation of many of the styles and accessories associated with western wear today.

Western clothing is America’s only indigenous fashion category---the western outfit having originated in the American West. The style was perpetuated by the working class and glamorized in countless Hollywood movies.

And, during its heyday in the 1930s through the 1950s, American western wear was the rage coast-to-coast. It was not uncommon to see long calico dresses and cowboy boots on Broadway in New York City.

How it influenced fashion back East.

In the 1870s and 1880s, the stories of life out west began to trickle back to the large cities in the east. Legends were born, and the city folk became enchanted by the stories of life on the frontier. Many of the tales were more fiction than truth: most were embellished with acts of daring and almost supernatural feats.

It wasn’t long before troupes of actors began to create reenactments of famous events for the public back east. These reenactments became extremely popular. Heroes and legends like William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody and James B. (Wild Bill) Hickok were recruited to portray themselves and performed before audiences wearing their authentic western attire…to the pleasure of the entire crowd.

Before long, traveling Wild West shows were the craze back east. The living legends, along with real-live natives, hired to portray themselves, reenacted some of the famous battles of folklore. Celebrated gunfighters squared off on Main Street with an old archrival and once again beat him to the draw. The same stagecoach was robbed night after night as the thrilled audience encouraged the driver to go faster.

One of the most famous reenactments was, and still is, the Gunfight at the OK Corral---considered to be the most famous gun battle of the Old West. In reality, the fight only lasted about 30 seconds. But it has been replayed thousands of times before millions of viewers. One can still watch the reenactment today in Tombstone, AZ.

The outfits worn by the performers impacted the fashion world almost from the beginning. The flashy, fringed shirts, and adorned trousers began to be mixed with the everyday western styles that had begun to influence the eastern population. 

The Rodeo

Soon to follow the Wild West shows were the rodeos. They were initially incorporated into some of the Wild West shows but quickly gained an identity of their own.

By the 1920s, the money that could be made by a successful rodeo star began to draw both cowboys and cowgirls to the arena. In cities like New York and Boston, the rodeo became a huge crowd pleaser.

The outfits worn by the rodeo performers were spawned in the Wild West shows, and many big-city tailors and seamstresses saw an opportunity to cash in on the trend. As they created outfits for the performers, they would copy the design for their own lines of clothing.

Several of these tailors would impact the future styles of western wear in America.  They opened the door for future designers of cowboy and native-American influenced apparel for both men and women. These early fashion designers were the inspiration for 1980’s boutique designers such as Patricia Wolf and Double-D Ranchwear.

In the late 1920s live rodeo was a major attraction across the nation. The rodeo stars, both men and women, with their flashy, bright-colored, rhinestone-infused outfits were instant hits with the crowds. The styles of the rodeo of the ’20s were the inspiration for the western fashion styles of the 1930s and 1940s.

With very little distinction between men’s and women’s styles, the western outfit consisted of button-up shirts, denim jeans, cowboy boots, and large hats. The colors were bright and flashy and tanned leather was the favorite material for jackets and vests dripping with sequins, beads, and fringe. A western dressed person certainly made a statement in the ’30s and ’40s.

Women’s apparel gets its turn.

Wrangler invented zip-up jeans for women in 1948. And, that same year, cotton chambray and denim shirts with metal-rim pearl buttons appeared on the market. Then, moving into the 1950s, thanks to television and Hollywood, western fashion hit its peak across America. Stars like Roy and Dale, The Duke and his many leading ladies helped the fashion industry grow with their enormous appeal on the silver screen.

In the ’50s, and into the ’60s, the entertainment industry tended to exaggerate western apparel on the screen. But when the public saw the stars relaxing and playing at home wearing the casual versions of their on-screen wardrobes--- well, the industry flourished. Western wear began to take on an everyday casual appeal, and the flashy, rhinestone glittered outfits were reserved for the rodeo and country music stars.

The new look in women’s jeans in the ’50s was a slimmer shape that followed the contours of the body. They started with a higher waist and were full over the hips, and the legs were tapered with length enough to roll up the cuffs. They were not skintight as the replica 1950’s pinup jeans are today.

In traditional everyday styles of western clothing, women’s pants and shirts looked a lot like the men’s fashion. But they were created with a more feminine cut. Shirts with snap buttons, decorative yokes, and fringe, along with V-shaped front panels made the women’s style of blouses and button-down shirts exclusively feminine.

In women’s skirts and dresses, it was surprising that the details found in pants and shirts were not present in the women's’ style. The western influence was present, but mostly in patterns and colors. Of course, gingham checks and many plaids are very western. But it was the ladies of country music who introduced the style and tradition of tiered or circled skirts with western motifs and prints in women’s western wear.

One famous western designer.

It was in this era that one of the most prominent western designers rose to fame. Nuta Kotlyarenko was born in 1902 in Kiev, Ukraine. He came to the United States as a youth. He grew, married, and ultimately entered the fashion world and became known professionally as Nudie Cohn. He created a $10,000.00 gold suit embedded with rhinestones for Elvis Pressley, and this creation rocketed him to stardom.

He would go on to design clothing, known as Nudie Suits, for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, John Wayne, Gene Autry, Steve McQueen, Johnny Cash, John Lennon, Eric Clapton, and many, many more. Even Elton John wore Nudie Cohn ensembles on stage, and President Ronald Regan had several outfits created by Nudie.

Nudie became known as the Rodeo Tailor as the stars flocked to his North Hollywood business for his special creations. His legend lives on as one of the most outrageous and flamboyant designers in the history of western clothing and accessories. He blurred the lines of fashion and set far-reaching benchmarks for the styles worn in country music, movies and tv, and even into rock music.

Western Wear Today

The country music scene in Nashville has propelled the interest in today’s western wear and the western lifestyle. The stars are still establishing the trends in western fashion, and the industry prevails in a time of high-tech digitalization and modern chic designs.

Faded jeans with holes in the knees, logo-laden tee shirts, and distressed and tattered leather are the principles in the ultra-casual frontier of western wear today. It’s far from dead and is as commonplace in America’s culture as it has been for the last 150-plus years.

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So, with summer still upon us, it’s not too late to update your summer wardrobe with the latest women's western wear and fashions that will get you noticed---you’ll be the center of attraction at your next summertime event.