How Cowboy Culture Rode Its Way Onto Runways

Growing up around real cowboys who wake up well before sunrise, I never expected their styles to make their debut on high-fashion runways. 

2019 has brought an interesting twist to the runway trends we typically see every season. We’re seeing thematic collections in place of isolated trends—dress silhouettes, handbag shapes, shoe height—and it’s been an interesting time for fashion. Victoriana made a comeback with laced-up corsets, high, frilled collars, and intricate white lace. ‘90s athleisure has been worn by everyone and anyone, including the Princess Di bike shorts made popular by Kim Kardashian. 

This season has quickly become about dressing like someone, fitting into a different persona. Who do we want to be? Well, this season, we want to be cowboys, baby. 

Not one to miss out on popular cultural interest, the fashion industry has quickly grabbed a hold of the trend and made it its own. 

Trending contrast piping on rockabilly and pearl snap shirts has rocked the runway, bolo ties have been showcased, and rhinestoned cowboy boots have stomped around fashion week in all their yeehaw glory. And while it may seem like the American cowboy is just getting attention in fashion, it’s been around for a long time. 

If you want the perfect example, just take a look at Ralph Lauren. If you’ve ever been to a rodeo or any other type of Western event, it’s easy to see who sponsored what. There’s a jeans company, there’s a truck company, and there’s always a boot company. Interestingly enough, Ralph Lauren seems to be a silent sponsor in a lot of cutting horse competitions. “In this world of letting horses be the heroes, cutting horse riders seem to seek more from their individual competency than glitz. It’s a quiet, graceful style. Sounds like Ralph Lauren, doesn’t it,” said William Reynolds, of Cowboys & Indians magazine. Ralph Lauren loves the Western style so much, it even made a debut at the Met Gala this year. 

If we take a look at the roots of modern fashion culture, the history of the cowboy boot begins with purely functional purposes. It all started in 1815, when Arthur Wellesly, the first Duke of Wellington, defeated Napolean. After the defeat, public attention was brought to Wellesley’s boots, which were custom made, fit closely around the leg, and stopped-mid-calf. The boots were named the Wellingtons. During the American Civil War, soldiers wore a sturdier version of Wellington boots. The high tops of the boots prevented the boot from filling with water, the rounded toe made it easy to insert the foot into the stirrup and a slick sole allowed the boot to slip free when dismounting from the horse. During the 1940s, the shoe lost its practical purpose as actors such as John Wayne popularized the cowboy boot. 

Since then, cowboy culture has fluctuated within the fashion industry. Today, people are wanting to dress in practical clothing, something that works in a lot of different situations. While the sneaker is practical and has taken over luxury and accessible brand fashion, the cowboy boot works in just the same way. You can wear a boot to dinner, dress it up, wear it to a concert, walk in the city, run errands, or even go on a hike. 

The Western trend has blown up, going from a micro-trend to a full-blown fashion craze. Raf Simons has taken different interpretations of Western style at Calvin Klein for a couple of seasons through boots, double denim, and cowboy boots. We’ve even seen it at Saint Lauren through Anthony Vaccarello with pearl-snaps, plaid shirts, and cropped wide-collar jackets. Brands from Fashion Nova and Forever21 to Vetements and Louis Vuitton have incorporated the styles into their collections.

But, why now? Why is cowboy culture and American influence overtaking the fashion industry? Dr. Laurel Wilson, professor of textiles and apparel at the University of Missouri, says it all stems from your personal take on the current American political climate. 

“The times we tend to see cowboy dress appearing in fashion are times when America is either ultra-patriotic or under stress,” Wilson states. As for the political part in the rise of cowboy culture, Vogue’s Chioma Nnadi noted that Isabel Marant’s Fall 2018 show in Paris was surprising, noting that “the style myth of Americana continues to thrive given the epically low international approval rating of the State’s right now” (Mondalek, 2018). The same conversation rose again after the Las Vegas massacre of 2017, when an image of a pair of starred and striped cowboy boots circulated the internet. 

And while the trend may have undergone a rebirth a couple of years ago at Tom Ford’s Fall 2014 show, it completely blew up early this past spring. Conversations of cowboy culture and Americana quickly began to spring up as the viral video of Mason Ramsey, better known as “Walmart Yodel Boy”, circulated the internet last spring. When he went from being a meme to a Coachella star, people started talking. It wasn’t until Lil Nas X dropped Old Town Road that it really blew up. 

We quickly started seeing everyone from Haley Bieber to Lizzo and even Diplo donning a cowboy hat on Instagram and at practically any event with media coverage. Yet, the Western trend goes far beyond just a hat and boots. 

If you’re wanting to partake in the trend but don’t exactly want to look like you’re dressing up as Toy Story’s Woody, you’re probably wondering how exactly you’re going to take this on without looking like you’re wearing a costume. Don’t be afraid of the costume connotations. Think chore jackets, fringe, denim and plaid shirts, and on-trend fabrics with practical fits. 

Don’t jump into this all at once, people are definitely going to start asking if you’re okay. Start with simple inclusions of cowboy accessories. Denim, cord, or check styled shirts are a great start. When it comes to bottoms, please don’t jump right in and go for chaps. Cowboys don’t wear this on the daily 24/7, and neither should you. Light wash denim is a great option, start with either bootcut or even better – slim cut denim. 

When it comes to jackets, stick with sandy suede, classic Levi Strauss denim, or even corduroy. The jacket should be cut to end just above the waist with a cinch at the waist for a contemporary look. Stick with darker washes and thicker fabric. Early cowboys wore these styles after Strauss originally invented them for cowboys who were wearing clothing that wasn’t durable enough for the work they were doing. 

And when it comes to accessories, use belts, bandanas, bolo ties, and if you have the confidence, a Stetson hat. Play into contrasts. If you’re wearing a blue denim on denim look, a red bandana would give a great contrast and add rich color. Real cowboys and cowgirls also play with fabrics – I’ve seen people wearing everything from cotton to silk “wild rags”. 

When it comes to belts, make sure you match metals and fabrics. Also remember not to get a buckle the size of the state of Texas. If you’re into high fashion, brands like Louis Vuitton and Dior will have what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for authentic Western wear, check out brands like Wrangler, Ariat, Justin, and Carhartt. 

If you need more inspiration, you can find it here

Whatever your take on cowboy culture, remember that cowboys aren’t made of boots and hats. Instead, they’re made of the (wo)men inside them. 


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