The cowboy is arguably the most romantic of all American traditions. There are immediate and vibrant images that come to mind of lonely cowboys traveling rhythmically across the hot plains on horseback, without cause but full of reasons; cattle moving in amorphous union from one pasture to another, guided by watchful cowboys and loyal dogs; poker games that end in gun fights with hip-slung revolver pistols. Adventure. Danger. Romance!
The western aesthetic is just as iconic: pearl snap, double pocket shirts tucked into stiff, boot cut indigo jeans, stacked heel cowboy boots with squared-off tips and tooled leather belts with silver buckles. Ankle-length, waxed overcoats and thick, roughly woven ponchos double as blankets after nightfall. And the most enduring piece of western style, of course, the curvaceous brimmed cowboy hat, which shields squinting eyes and twitchy jaws.
While traditional western dress has always maintained a natural popularity in the southern and western parts of the United States, these days cowboy fashion is springing up lately where cows, horses and tumbleweed have not been historically abundant.
Most recently, at Grazia Chiuri’s resort show for Christian Dior, models took to the outdoor runway in California wearing colorful, beaded tops and blanket skirts, suede duster coats with belled sleeves and fringed bottoms, and lace-up boots with vintage silver details. Earth-toned fur coats were cinched in the waist by thin leather belts with tails left long. Midi-length, multi-tiered dresses in tiny floral prints were trimmed in antique white lace with fitted bodices.
Looking back at the spring shows, Rodarte showed yoke front leather jackets with fringe and safety pin detail, embodying what felt like a moto-cowboy union. Roberto Cavalli interpreted the more feminine perspective, adopting the corset front tops, conch belts and embroidery in his show. French designer Isabel Marant has had a love affair with cowboy boots and lace-trimmed prairie skirts for more than a decade.
Fashion does love a good metaphor, so in a way it is not surprising that the industry has embraced this desperado meets Georgia O’Keefe aesthetic and given the trend legs. But the style is treated as a once removed novelty, and it seems that this overt treatment of the western aesthetic makes it feel like a costume and therefore, a bit inauthentic.
Perhaps it is the tall, young, willowy models with poreless porcelain skin that don’t look right in “The Good the Bad and the Ugly” era intarsia ponchos and concho-trimmed hats. Perhaps it is that the clothes are designer and expensive that makes the style seem frivolous or even fraudulent. The very literal interpretation of the cowboy style is both the trend’s success and also its biggest problem.
It is also interesting that the western tradition of dress has changed very little over modern history, and yet it is fashion’s current and ongoing object of fascination. In a time of social conflict, of resurging feminism, of a constant reaching into the future, the perpetual focus on this grand American story does not seem fitting, and yet consumers have responded to it.
Part of the job of fashion is to reinvent and redefine our preconceived notions. But in this case, it’s hard to make the cowboy into something else — to complicate him, to read between the lines, to take him out of the pasture and into a Parisian fashion house. It is the very singularity of cowboy culture that we are drawn to. The western tradition is a symbol of a people defined by pragmatism, courage and an unobscured relationship between humans and nature – a compelling story for art, history and even fashion.