Wild, Wild Western Shirts

Paul Newman wearing Wrangler and a cowboy-hat
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

Have you heard the good news? We’re in the midst of a Western revival in menswear. That’s right, the cowboy look is back, and I for one am ready to take to the rooftops and let loose a hardy ‘yeehaw!’ (Just how that will play in central Edinburgh remains to be seen). I’m always happy these days to see a pair of cowboy boots or a Stetson Open Road cross on my Instagram feed, and doubly so for a good kerchief or a cheeky bit of fringe. (If your own feed is in need of some rodeo flair, check out folks like @1lrg, @wayne97677, @mori.nl, and @corymahlke.)

All of which is to say, if you’re at all cowboy curious, now is a great time to dive into the world of ranchwear. And there’s no better place to start than with a Western shirt.

It’s a garment that was born in the nineteenth century from settlers moving into America’s western territories. Given the comparative isolation and sparseness of western outposts, textiles like cotton or wool were often hard to come by. So settlers took inspiration from Native American populations in the region and opted for simple pullover shirts made of animal skins. But leading up to the turn of the twentieth century, as railways began to stretch across the U.S., readier access to a variety of textiles allowed for the development of the type of shirt that’s more familiar to a modern eye.

Rockmount Ranchwear sign
Image credit: Paul L Dineen / CC BY 2.0

These would feature identifying traits like longer tail lengths to avoid untucking while on horseback and pointed yolks across the back and chest for added support and durability. The now-standard snap buttons were first introduced in the 1940s by Rockmount Ranch Wear founder, Jack A. Weil, to improve functionality for cowboys and rodeo riders in case their cuffs got snagged.

Buffalo Bill Wild West show poster c1899
Image credit: Library of Congress / Public domain

Western wear has long been the stuff of myth in America and beyond. Buffalo Bill Cody’s travelling Wild West show sparked the first wave of cultural interest back in 1883, but it was the early- and mid-twentieth century that took a collective obsession with all things Western to new heights. With the rise of popular culture came an attendant craze for country music and the countless cowboys that graced big and small screens alike. 

This twentieth-century craze for all things ranch-related is what added some glitz to the Western shirt. The eye-catching embroidery and piping that colours the shirts of many a modern cowboy first drew inspiration from the elaborate decorations of Mexican vaquero wear and the battle shirts of Confederate soldiers. But, thanks to a keen and ever-growing audience, this soon evolved into a costume that would help make rodeo and subsequently rhinestone cowboys more easily identifiable.

Chris Sacca wearing a Western-shirt
Western shirt enthusiast Chris Sacca
Image credit: Collision Conf / CC BY 2.0

In this sense, despite its very specific cultural and geographical associations, the Western shirt has essentially always been a multicultural garment. And it’s one that has certainly enjoyed a diverse following in its history. Perhaps its first international home was post-WWII Japan, a country whose celebrated embrace of vintage Americana thrives to this day. After America’s own Western pop cultural heyday, cowboy shirts enjoyed something of a revival among the country’s teenagers in the 1970s and 2000s, and tops with pointed yokes and pearl snap buttons are perennial must-haves in women’s fashion. They have also become the signatures of people as varied as fashion designer Ralph Lauren, venture capitalist Chris Sacca, and British rocker Chris Turpin. 

So, don’t hold back if you’re keen on a spot of cowboy cosplay. Get yourself a Western shirt today.

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