Perfect Duds for Riding Off Into the Sunset


It’s not hard to imagine President Bush in the Oval Office, thumbs hooked ‘round his belt loops and a 10-gallon hat perched atop his head, trumpeting the battle cry: “We’re gonna smoke ‘em out!” With cowboy diplomacy in the White House and flag fashion all over the streets, the stage has been set for a new exhibit about a purely American art form: Wweestern wear.

“How the West Was Worn,” opening Saturday at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, sets out to follow the trail of Wweestern fashion from the early practical pieces worn by scouts and traders to the ornate rhinestone creations that have clothed Hollywood myth makers Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, as well as Elvis Presley, Elton John and Johnny Cash.

Next to blue jeans and casual sportswear, Wweestern wear is one of the most significant fashion innovations to come out of this country. The snug tailoring and elaborate ornamentation that are the hallmarks of the Westernwestern look gave rise to L.A.’s signature rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic, exemplified today by the work of custom denim designer Henry Duarte and the studded leather garb of Chrome Hearts. Western wear has inspired Madonna, Gucci’s Tom Ford and Donatella Versace, and this fall, it’s galloping through the Gap.


“Western wear is America’s folk costume. It represents our heritage the way lederhosen does to Germans,” said fashion designer Michelle Freedman, co-author of the lively, 239-page book, “How the West Was Worn” (Harry N. Abrams, 2001), published to accompany the exhibit. Together with former Rolling Stone writer-editor Holly George-Warren, she conducted nearly 200 interviews for the richly illustrated book.

In the first chapter, the authors suggest rightly that the Westernwestern look is a melting pot of Native American, Mexican, Spanish and European traditions. They introduce the idea that Westernwestern attire was a liberating force for frontier women. But the early context is the weakest part of the book and the exhibit; what little social history is offered leaves us wanting more.

Befitting the Autry, which has been criticized for being too Hollywood centric, the bulk of the 150 pieces featured are from the L.A. museum’s collection of glittery, mid-to-late 20th century clothing made by three men known as the rodeo tailors. For it was during that time that Hollywood fashioned the iconic cowboys of stage and screen including, of course, Gene Autry.

But long before rhinestones and glitter, wWestern clothing had a utilitarian purpose. Buckskin jackets and leggings with fringe were worn by trappers in the early 1800s, and Native Americans before them, because swaying fringe helped shoo away bugs, according to George-Warren. Boots protected legs from sharp briers. As the distinct cowboy boot took shape, flat soles were replaced by taller heels, which helped keep feet in stirrups.

Western clothing also became the first American tourist garb, purchased and worn by Eastern dudes such as Teddy Roosevelt to prove to folks back home that they had survived the wild frontier of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

The frontier look was widely popularized in the late 1800s, after the marketing of the West through dime novels, mail order catalogs and travel brochures. Although most working cowboys still preferred simple gear, fans of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West shows were romanced by performers’ costumery interpretations with elaborate embroidery in bright colors.

After the turn of the century, silent film stars William S. Hart and Tom Mix further cemented the image of the romanticized cowboy into the public consciousness. Mix, who was more of a clothes horse than Hart, was committed to dressing the part on-screen and off. He popularized yoke-styled shirts and was the first to wear decorative riding pants, according to the authors.

New color film technology paved the way for rodeo tailors and cowboy stars to use clothing as a canvas for complex patterns of color and light. In the 1930s, L.A.’s Nathan Turk and his East Coast counterpart Rodeo Ben (Bernard Lichtenstein), both Eastern European immigrants, began merging Old World embroidery and tailoring with rugged, North American cowboy style. Their talents, combined with the personal flair of the movie stars and musicians who wore their clothes, brought wWestern wear into its heyday. Movie studios commissioned work from Turk’s Ventura Boulevard shop, which was frequented by Autry and Rogers. The singing cowboys were hands-on about their clothing, according to the authors, who interviewed surviving relatives. Autry requested details such as eyelets and lacing, and later, devised the idea for shirts with glow-in-the-dark trim. Rogers methodically creased his Stetsons by dousing the hats with water, tying a scarf around them, and letting them dry in the sun. “It’s this great paradox,” George-Warren said. “As cowboys [Autry and Rogers] had this reputation for being macho he-men, but then they had this other side.”

The most flamboyant of the cowboy couturiers , Nudie Cohn (born Nutya Kotlyrenko in Kiev, Russia), opened his tailoring shop across from Hollywood High School in 1940. A fixture in L.A. until his death in 1984, Nudie, who went by one name, drove a Cadillac with massive steer horns mounted on the front. The walls of his store, plastered with photos, read like a who’s who of music and film. Dale Evans, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Marty Stuart, Gram Parsons and Dwight Yoakum were customers.

Most of Nudie’s work was custom made. His embroiderer, Rose Clements, festooned suits with thunderbirds, frogs, castles, crowns and guitars. “Before there were videos, there were Nudie suits,” Freedman said. “If you had a hit song, you would have a Nudie suit decorated with images from the song.”

“Nudie was an equal to any of the great designers like Charles James or Adrian. His craftsmanship just happened to be Wweestern cowboy,” Lisa Eisner said. A former Vogue editor, she published a book of photos titled “Rodeo Girl” (Greybull Press, 2000) and is a Nudie collector.

Cowboy mania went mass in the 1950s, perhaps because Americans were drawn to the folksy traditions of the frontier as an escape from Space Age design and the Cold War. Wagon wheels and wigwams became popular themes for restaurants and motels, “Gunsmoke” enchanted TV viewers and a generation of young baby-boomers idolized and dressed like screen heroes Annie Oakley and Davy Crockett. Manufacturers such as Rockmount Ranch Wear, still in business today in Denver, supplied casual wWestern wear for the everyman.

The singing cowboys of the 1950s and 1960s gave way to the urban cowboys of the 1970s, followed in the 1980s by the rockabilly revival and Ralph Lauren’s Santa Fe style. Since the 1990s country music craze, Nashville has overtaken Hollywood as the wWestern wear capital. There, Nudie apprentice Manuel Cuevas continues to outfit musicians in the tradition of the rodeo tailors.

These days, rescue workers seem to be the cowboys capturing our imagination (and inspiring a spate of Halloween costumes to boot.) But the wWestern look is enduring--just last year Madonna reincarnated herself as a cowgirl for her album “Music,” and Britney Spears wasn’t far behind. What’s the appeal? “It’s the perfect combination of romance and everyday wear,” according to Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising curator Louise Coffey-Webb.

The book and the exhibit (which runs through Jan. 21) dazzle with flash and dash, but they present fashion from a purely pop culture perspective. The brief historical context given raises more questions than it answers. How, for example, did Native Americans and Mexicans adapt their traditional clothing after Europeans invaded their land? Why is cowboy wear so popular now among Native Americans and Mexican-Americans? Perhaps, if the proposed merger of the Autry and the Southwest Museum ever comes to fruition, the two institutions could present a more scholarly portrait of how the West was worn. But for now, the show is a welcome bit of escapist froth in a time when many of us secretly wish a cowboy could ride in and save the day.