We may not walk around looking like Porter Wagoner or Roy Rogers anymore, but Western fashion has never gone out of style. Some argue that rhinestones and colorful embroidery made their way into the mainstream compliments of America’s Favorite Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry. He introduced bright colors and bling that could be seen from the stage of packed arenas in the 1930s and ’40s. The popularity of Western wear thrived thanks to performers such as Autry, Patsy Cline, Dale Evans, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, and shows like the Grand Ole Opry.
When we talk about Western wear, we picture the hats, pearl-snap shirts, and boots. However, this apparel has a precedent that goes back much earlier. Here in the West and Southwest, Western wear isn’t simply a fashion statement; it’s a way of life. Hats, long-sleeve shirts, jeans, and boots originated with a utilitarian purpose—to offer protection from the blistering sun, prickly thorn scrub, and the occasional rattlesnake.
Kathie Sever, Western wear seamstress and owner of Austin-based Fort Lonesome Camp & Custom said, “There is a mythology to Western wear that represents so much of what we do every day, of what we all hope to do with our lives…the dream of moving out into the unknown, to navigate capably, to be brave.” The Mexican and Native American influence on Western wear cannot be overstated. Vaqueros were the original cowboys with hat sizes varying by region, and Mexican women showcased their embroidery skills using brightly colored yarn to make traditional huipiles (blouses) and shawls. Native American cultures in the Southwestern region have long been known for their elaborate beadwork, tanned leather hides, and coveted silversmith work replete with turquoise and coral.
In urban environments like San Antonio, it is safe to assume that the great majority of those wearing cowboy boots do so out of a sense of fashion, rather than utility. Even though, for many of us, our connection to the land is close—often just a generation or two away. So much of the American West is about acculturation and assimilation; what we choose to wear is very much part of that.
“The cowboy’s pragmatic and recognizable uniform provides a template for a shared national aesthetic language. He is both our patron saint and our freedom fighter. We honor this dichotomy every time we don his costume in some fashion,” Sever said.
The Briscoe Museum is adjacent to the Presa Street Bridge, San Antonio’s oldest working bridge dating back to the late 1800s, when the famed cattle drives began. As you walk the streets of downtown you can see the Western influence and appeal everywhere—from the New York tourists exiting Paris Hatters in their new Stetsons to the mothers and daughters in matching worn-in Wranglers that have come to the city to spend the day. I urge you to look around and consider how the Western influence has infiltrated the clothes you wear, in both obvious and subtle ways—beadwork on a bag, tribal designs on earrings, silver belt buckles, and tooled leather. Western wear has a long history and represents a confluence of cultures, much like our beloved city, San Antonio.
“The enduring appeal of Western wear speaks to our human need for structure and story,” Sever asserted. Later this month, the Briscoe Western Art Museum will screen Urban Cowboy as its third installment in this year’s inaugural film series dedicated to the urban West. We’ve invited Sever to facilitate a discussion immediately following the film, when we’ll explore its influence on Sever as a contemporary maker of the Western aesthetic.
Featured/Top Image: Custom embroidery specially designed for each client by Ft. Lonesome Camp & Custom. Images courtesy of Kathie Sever.