Ranchers, Racers and Rodeos: The History of Wrangler

Close-up of Wrangler label
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Before the floodgates of designer jeans had been opened back in the 1970s by the likes of Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, the denim world was ruled by just three brands. The Big Three in question were Levi’s, Lee, and Wrangler, each distinguished by their back pocket stitching: double arches for Levi’s, double waves for Lee, and just a straight ‘W’ for Wrangler. And while all denim was blue-collar and blue in colour, each maker would carve out its own particular corner of the market. For Wrangler, it was Western wear.

Wrangler jeans back pocket design
Image credit: Jacob_Mckinley on Pixabay

But all of that would come later. The company’s story starts in 1897 when a 20-year-old named C.C. Hudson left his farm in Williamson County, Tennessee in search of better things. He headed to the emerging textile town of Greensboro in North Carolina where he got a job in an overall factory, sewing on buttons for 25 cents a day. When the factory closed a few years later, Hudson bought several sewing machines off his former employer and, along with his brother Homer, put his hard-won workwear know-how to use by founding the Hudson Overall Company. 

Portrait of Wrangler founder C.C. Hudson
Wrangler founder C.C. Hudson
Image credit: Schröder+Schömbs / CC BY-ND 2.0

With second-hand machinery and a base located above a Greensboro grocery store, it perhaps wasn’t the most auspicious of beginnings, but in no time their overalls started selling. Enough so, in fact, that by 1919 the Hudsons expanded operations into a warehouse and decided to drop their moniker from the company name. Thus was born the Blue Bell Overall Company, which (with several corporate acquisitions along the way) would eventually become Wrangler.

The company’s first big hit came in 1936 with Super Big Ben Overalls, a pair of dungarees that used the recently minted tech of sanforization to create a pair of pre-shrunk overalls that shrank less than 1% with every wash. This was unheard of in the 1930s and proved a big windfall for the business. Sadly, C.C. Hudson died just after the release of what would become his company’s first defining garment.

Old Wrangler jeans
A pair of Blue Bell Wrangler jeans
Image credit: Library of Congress / Public domain

While workwear was what birthed Wrangler, ranchwear would come to define it and by 1946 the rodeo beckoned. With a new, on-brand name, Wrangler began work on a pair of jeans purpose built for cowboys with the help of one Rodeo Ben, a cowboy tailor with Polish origins whose real name was Bernard Lichtenstein. 

Then next year, 1947, saw the release of their 13MWZ jeans, so called for being made from 13 oz. denim, but also appropriately known as the ‘cowboy cut’. It was built with riders in mind, sporting such defining features as flatter felled seams, back pockets positioned for comfort on horseback, a strongly tacked crotch, and flat rivets to protect a saddle from scratches. Also present were what would become Wrangler’s signature ‘W’ rear pocket stitching and their rope logo. Rodeo legends like Jim Shoulders, Bill Linderman, and Freckles Brown road tested the 13MWZ and endorsed the Wrangler brand by wearing them in the saddle. This did wonders for Wrangler sales and the brand duly took its place as the biggest name in town as far as Western wear was concerned. 

Man on a ranch wearing Wranglers
Image credit: Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Postwar America’s obsession with denim sent Wrangler to further heights. By 1962 they launched in Europe thanks to the opening of a plant in Belgium. In 1974 they became the first (and still only) brand officially endorsed by the Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association. Then, in 1981, they began their first NASCAR sponsorship via an endorsement of the legendary driver Dale Earnhardt and his blue-and-yellow ‘Wrangler Jean Machine’. All of which was enough to make them the market leader by 1991, at which point one in every four men in the U.S. was wearing Wranglers. 

Dale Earnhardt in Wrangler jumpsuit
NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt
Image credit: Ted Van Pelt / CC BY 2.0

Today Levi’s has more than double Wrangler’s share of the market, but the brand continues to dominate its niche of the denim world. In December 2013, the company launched WranglerNetwork.com, a news and entertainment site dedicated to rodeo, NASCAR, and country music. Wranglers have appeared onscreen in such films as Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood (2019), in which Brad Pitt rocks a 24MJZ jacket, in Hud (1963) in the form of a denim shirt worn to perfection by Paul Newman, and in Baby, The Rain Must Fall (1965) where Steve McQueen does the same. It also continues to be associated with such brand ambassadors as country star Jason Aldean, famed quarterback Brett Favre, and the aforementioned Jim Shoulders, with whom the label had a 58-year partnership. 

Paul Newman wearing Wrangler
Paul Newman wearing Wrangler for Hud
Image credit: 1950sUnlimited / CC BY 2.0

It’s worth noting though that while Wrangler’s mainstay continues to be the Southern US states where it made its name, their products have a worldwide cult following. I was born in South Africa to a denim-obsessed father who counted Wranglers among the favourites in his collection. My own first piece of Wrangler came in the form of this Western shirt. I came to it via a rave review from Derek Guy over at Put This On, who marvelled at the garment’s quality relative to its price point, and, having worn the colour off of mine in the last few months, I have to agree. Then in more recent times, to quote a headline from The Strategist, there’s this small, well-deserved cult that’s formed around a pair of seemingly-ugly $30 men’s pants. The pants in question are these black polyester slacks made by, you guessed it, none other than Wrangler. 

All of which is to say, despite being born from second-hand equipment atop a grocery store, Wrangler continues to prove that mainstream denim is far from a one-horse race. 

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