Pepin van Rooijen of Pepin Press, Amsterdam, recently donated many boxes of textiles to the TRC. Among them are some welcome additions to our North American collection: cowgirl clothes. Sometimes called Western wear, these items include long sleeve, plaid shirts (TRC 2017.0252 and TRC 2017.0253) and shirts with distinctive piping around the yoke and snap buttons (TRC 2017.0269 and TRC 2017.0264), sometimes embroidered with horses or red roses (TRC 2017.0257, TRC 2017.0267, TRC 2017.0253). There is an iconic buckskin-like jacket with fringes and an accompanying leather skirt with fringes on the hem (TRC 2017.0274 and TRC 2017.0275).
Western wear evolved during the nineteenth century in the American West for work in harsh conditions. There were many influences: buffalo skin coats, moccasins (worn before the mass production of boots) and decorative fringes on leather garments came from Native Americans; broad-brimmed hats, heavy belts decorated with silver, and leather chaps originated from Spanish and Mexican riders, as did the custom of embroidering red roses on shirts. Chaps evolved from a sort of leather apron, split in half in order to wrap around the legs to protect valuable cloth trousers from being damaged by cacti or dirt.
The story of Western wear is also the story of American business: the use of plaid, or tartan, supposedly arose from Scottish
traders exchanging such cloth for goods by Native Americans. The iconic ten-gallon hat was invented by a hat maker from New Jersey, who moved to the West for his health. John B. Stetson fashioned a felt hat with a wide brim to keep off the sun; he gave his hat a water proof lining so he could also use it as a water bucket. Westerners liked his invention: he started mass producing hats in 1865. Shoemaker Charles Hyer of Kansas is said to have created the cowboy boot in the mid-1870s, getting inspiration from the boots that soldiers wore during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Also in the 1870s, a German immigrant named Levi Strauss started marketing tough work trousers made of blue denim, reinforced with rivets for more strength.
Last but not least, many of the Western wear garments recently acquired by the TRC carry the brand name Roebuck. This brand was launched in 1949 by one of America’s biggest retailers, the Sears Company, to advertise their blue jeans. By the 1950s, films and television Westerns had made cowboy wear popular in all parts of the USA. The Sears’ jeans were advertised as “friendly fittin’ as a western saddle.” The brand continues today as Sears’s line of work clothes. You can see more images of the TRC’s collection of Western wear at the TRC’s on-line catalogue.
Shelley Anderson, 12 April 2017