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I Can See by Your Outfit That You Are a Cowboy

The burdens of Western wear.
(Illustration: Sebastien Thibault)

(Illustration: Sebastien Thibault)

The summer before my senior year of high school, I scored a job booking trail rides for Yosemite National Park’s horse stables, from which cowboys led wide-eyed tourists from Yosemite Valley into the high country. The slow-paced work let me spend the season gazing at young cowboys in their perfect outfits—denim Western shirts that had been bleached of their blue, dusty high-heeled boots, and Wranglers with back pockets worn with the shape of circular cans of chaw.

The cowboys could have starred in Western films, and as a result, the customers seemed to have complete trust in the men. I was envious—of their outfits, of the confidence those outfits gave them—and I coveted that well-defined character, built out of sturdy fabrics and poise.

After the fashion industry and public lost interest, Western-wear manufacturers suffered through their most austere time on the books.

Equally smitten with Western fashion and culture was Manhattan- born Theodore Roosevelt. In the 1880s, he picked up an expensive wardrobe that included sealskin chaps and alligator leggings on one of several trips for his doctor-prescribed “West Cure,” a regimen of red meat and physical adventures in the uncultivated wilderness meant to treat his neurasthenia—brought about by the loss of his mother and his wife on the same fateful day—along with an extended bout of asthma and what critics felt was a tad too much femininity. Roosevelt later outfitted his Rough Riders in the same careful cowboy aesthetic. I suspect he imagined, like I did, that accessorizing the body in the Western way, accentuating the right parts, would grant access to the fruits of the Western tradition: self-reliance, coolness under crisis, rough-and-readiness.

In 1977, Bronx-born designer Ralph Lauren came west too, landing in Denver, a town in which he claimed he could not find a single authentic cowboy shirt. The following year, he started a Western wear line in the spirit of rediscovery, crafting fashionable Americana for a national audience. About 20 years later, the year after I worked at the Yosemite stables, Lauren took his company public in a $767 million IPO. Lauren got rich, and in the process he sparked a battle in the long fight between the East and the West over Western shirt authenticity.

“There’s no Westerner like an Easterner,” Jack A. Weil, the Denver-based Henry Ford of the cowboy shirt, once said. Weil, who died in 2008 at age 107 and is thought to have been the oldest-ever CEO, had been designing and manufacturing Western shirts for his company, Rockmount Ranch Wear, since 1946. To my mind, Weil was acknowledging, however sarcastically, the East’s role in defining what is essentially “Western.” In a letter to Vanity Fair, however, responding to a feature article, “Pardners in Style,” that trumpeted Lauren’s success in preserving Western fashion, Weil implied that Lauren failed to find a Western shirt in Denver because he did not know how to use a phone book.

I, too, came to loathe Ralph Lauren—not because he appropriated cowboys the way he did preppies to create what’s now a $15 billion business, but because he made cowboy shirts trendy, riding on the Urban Cowboy film craze, and what is trendy inevitably goes bust. Lauren and Urban Cowboy shifted Western wear from a practical working-class uniform into a fashion statement, a costume. In the mid-1980s, after the fashion industry and public lost interest, Western wear manufacturers suffered through their most austere time on the books. Steve Weil—Jack Weil’s grandson, current CEO of Rockmount, and author of Western Shirts: A Classic American Fashion—explained to me that after the fashion’s demise, the term urban cowboy even “became derogatory toward the end—costumey, satin.”

Last year, Ralph Lauren published its new “look book,” a portfolio featuring the designer’s new product line. In its pages were stylish shots of models, set alongside historic tintype images of Native American men and women clothed in Western wear. The late 1800s to the mid-1900s—when those tintypes were captured—were considered the “allotment and assimilation era” for Native Americans. Ralph Lauren’s use of photographs of people forced to abandon their traditional dress for denim and loose-knotted neckerchiefs celebrates a period in which the government established reservations for tribes and required their children to go to English-speaking schools, often far from their families’ homes. The legacy of many early federal practices lives on in the poverty and crime rates in today’s Indian Country.

Activists decried the new sales pitch, and after a call for a boycott of what critics called Ralph Lauren’s “assimilation aesthetic” and “genocide aesthetic,” the company apologized and removed the images from its website, claiming it celebrates “the rich history, importance, and beauty of our country’s Native American heritage.” Regardless of the designer’s intentions, by showcasing men and women whose Western costume failed to grant them the power, freedom, and dignity that supposedly come with the aesthetic, Lauren once again spotlighted the nation’s complicated relationship with Western fashion and culture.

Activists decried the new sales pitch, and called for a boycott of what critics called Ralph Lauren's "assimilation aesthetic" and "genocide aesthetic."

Of course, I understand the draw of the cowboy costume. Despite my own Western roots, I was also a greenhorn among those cowboys who had so clearly dressed the part. But even more problematic: In my years of attempting to characterize the West, I developed such a narrow definition of Western authenticity that I excluded the likes of Ralph Lauren, and, much to my disappointment, even myself. The "authentic" West can be as labyrinthine as the braided piping on a cowboy shirt, and both the East and the West have taken part in defining it.

Toward the end of my summer job at the Yosemite stables, the customer lines grew shorter and the fly strips emptier, and the heat waned. The men ushered horses into a trailer bound for the San Joaquin Valley, where they would board in the offseason. I would go back to school and sit quietly in desk rows among ordinary boys and girls in a small High Sierra mountain town, the seasonal cowboys would board the daily Greyhounds back to some city, and the perennial business would remain shuttered until spring, when the dogwoods would bloom, and again the gates would yawn open to let in the horses.

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