Avoid Way-Out Western Wear to Prevent a Duds Dud

T here are two ways to dress in unmistakably American fashion: You can wear traditional, Native American dress or you can put on cowboy duds.

Both looks are striking; only one takes to laundering very well.

So let's assume you've decided that you can't go another week without filling that gap in your closet with stuff that'll make you look taller in the saddle (or at least less out of place at your weekly line dancing lessons). How do you know when you've achieved the proper balance of urbanity and trail dust?

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HE: You've gotta start at the bottom. Boots. They're the absolute essential. Without a good pair of boots--not necessarily flashy, but good-- you might as well try to strut in penny loafers.

Rule One: Don't be intimidated by cowboy boots. Sure, they look pretty radical with the high heel and the pointy toe, but well-made ones will be among the most comfortable items of footwear you'll ever own. The toe doesn't pinch and the heel doesn't throw off your balance. Those two features originally were designed to help the boot slip into stirrups easily and, once in, to help them stay there securely.

Rule Two: Try on several pair, from different makers, in the style you like. They're different--different fit, arch, width and so on. One pair will be just about right. Another will be perfect.

Rule Three: You don't need to go crazy with exotic materials. Yes, you can buy elephant skin boots for about the price of a Hyundai. But why? Keep it fairly simple and you'll wear them forever.

SHE: A woman needs to start her urban cowgirl look at the top--with the perfect hat. Sure, her boots had better be made for walking--and dancin'--but it's the tilt of her perfectly fitted hat that will quicken her cowboy's heart.

Sporting a Western hat is a commitment, cowgirls say. And they're right. To wear a Panama (my favorite) properly, you have to push your hair back, pull the brim down to your eyebrows and kiss your 'do goodby.

HE: The best advice I ever heard on wearing a cowboy hat came from James Garner in the movie "Murphy's Romance." Paraphrased, it's something like this: Push it to the back of your head and it means your digestion works, you're happy with the world and everything in it, and it's OK to approach. The hat squared on the head means that you're purposeful, actively lookin' around for whatever the day will bring. Pushed forward, it's a warning to clear a path, because you're cocked and loaded for bear.

These rules probably mean a lot more in a Texas wildcatters' dive than they do in your local designer tequila fern bar.

SHE: My favorite look on a tall-in-the-saddle city dude: old, old black jeans, clean white shirt, fawn-colored Stetson, bolo tie and a belt with a silver buckle big enough to sink a Brahma bull.

Western looks I hate: checkered square dance shirts that make men look like sissies, can't-breathe-in-my-skintight-Levi's and those dang garters some guys snap onto their upper arms.

HE: Since guys like Garth Brooks showed up, a lot of that weenie, "Oklahoma" wardrobe cast-off junk has disappeared, let us hope forever. One of the best of the newer innovations are the men's shirts. Instead of fake mother-of-pearl snaps and cheap cloth that looks like a TV test pattern, the shirts on the racks today are often heavy cotton with a nice rough hand; the buttons are substantial and real, and the colors are bright, striking and not a bit fussy.

SHE: Another Western silhouette that makes a woman look like a million: the ankle-length gingham or calico dress like the ones worn by Grace Kelly in "High Noon." You'll catch her ultra-feminine head-to-toe Western silhouette: puff-sleeve dress brushing the ground, a little bustle in back. Not all Western gals have to wear pants, after all.

HE: Here's a simple rule of thumb for guys if they want to look authentic: Don't wear anything the Duke wouldn't have worn. This means no boots in several primary colors, no belt buckles that obscure the knees (sorry, Ann) and nothing with a designer label or a product endorsement printed on it. And don't wear anything that jingles. If it's spurs, it'll scare your date, and if it isn't, you might be mistaken for a Dolly Parton roadie.

SHE: And here's a few rules for gals: Go easy on the rhinestones. Too many and you'll be looking like you missed the bus to Vegas. A chunky, low heel on a boot is more stylish than a stiletto type. Go easy on the turquoise. A squash-blossom necklace is lovely, but combine it with a turquoise belt, earrings, rings and bracelets and you'll look like a walking trading post. And about that leather purse. Don't carry the one you take to work. Do bring along the little tooled number that you found in Santa Fe. Perfect.

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