The American cowboy roamed the plains west of the Mississippi River in the mid- to late nineteenth century. His job involved tending cattle, usually miles from where he lived and for months at a time. The cowboy developed a functional manner of dress that suited his unique lifestyle. Some of the key elements of cowboy attire have entered into the American popular imagination and become symbols of a romantic and lost way of life.
The American cowboys borrowed much of their clothing, along with many of their customs, from the earlier vaqueros, herdsmen of Mexican and American Indian descent who migrated northward over the Rio Grande River into Texas. Necessity also dictated a lot of the cowboy's attire. A cowboy had to carry everything he might need with him on his horse. He was plagued by many dangers, including hostile American Indians, rattlesnakes, cattle rustlers, sudden rainstorms, flooding rivers, and stampeding cattle. Virtually everything the cowboy wore or kept close at hand was designed to help him overcome these obstacles.
A typical cowboy outfit consisted of a muslin (sheer cotton fabric) shirt with a waistcoat, similar to a vest, and denim or buckskin trousers. To protect his legs when riding through thorny brush, the cowboy wore a set of leggings called chaps, an abbreviation of chaparejos, the Spanish word for the leggings, over his trousers. Chaps were made of leather or animal hide, often with the fur left on the outside, and covered only the front of the legs to allow for freedom of movement. Fur chaps made of bear and goat were used on the northern ranges. Chaps were attached by a belt at the waist and ties along the back of the legs. Some early chaps were fringed at the seams.
Another essential component of cowboy style was the wide-brimmed hat, designed to protect the wearer from the harsh elements of the open plain, especially the blistering sun. Cowboy hats added an element of individuality to the cowboy's attire. Often the cowboy would make his own hat. There were regional distinctions as well. It was said that you could tell where a cowboy came from by the shape of his hat. The most famous cowboy hat of all was designed by John B. Stetson of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Stetson hats were made of wool felt with a large brim and oval, cylindrical crown. So many cowboys wore Stetson hats that the hats came to be known as "Boss of the Plains" and became a symbol of the American West.
A kerchief tied loosely around the neck performed a variety of functions for the cowboy. He could use it to protect his mouth and nose from dust, cover the back of his neck to prevent sunburn, or tie it around his head to keep his hat from blowing off on windy days. It could even be used as a makeshift sling for a broken arm. Red was the preferred color for these versatile bandannas, often called wipes.
Still popular in the twenty-first century is the cowboy boot. It was the most expensive part of the cowboy's wardrobe. Store-bought boots sold for seven dollars in 1880, while tailor-made models could go for as much as fifteen dollars. A high "Cuban heel" prevented the wearer's foot from slipping through his stirrup. When dismounting from a horse, the heels dug into the ground to ensure good footing. Early cowboy boots had square toes, though round and pointed styles eventually came into fashion. By the 1890s fancy cowboy boots were being sold through mail-order catalogs.
Cowboys first captured the public imagination during the large-scale cattle drives north from Texas in the period just after the American Civil War (1861–65). Their numbers steadily decreased with the decline of the open range and the advent of homesteading, the establishment of houses and farms on open land. While the cowboy era lasted barely a generation, the cowboy style lived on in the form of dime novels, movie serials, and television programs and remains a popular style of dress for many people in the United States.
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