From the gun-toting robots in HBO’s Westworld to the outlaw avatars in the most anticipated video game of the year, Red Dead Redemption 2, cowboys are having a bit of a renaissance right now.
Not one to miss the slightest whiff of a cultural whirlwind, the fashion industry has also deputised the western look, with contrast piping on rockabilly shirts and even the odd Stetson galloping down the catwalks, while cowboy boots stomp around fashion week in all their yeehaw, rhinestoned splendidness. (Check out model Luka Sabbat’s eye-catching snakeskin versions.)
The cowboy has fascinated designers long before this current phase, and we’re not just talking Ralph Lauren’s beloved double denim. The rockabilly movement in the mid 1950s was influenced by the debonair, peacocking style of Hollywood cowboys at the time, while the buckskin jackets used by frontiersmen were adapted into the suede, fringed jacket – a significant symbol in the counterculture movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, as seen in films like Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy.
Luka Sabbat & Ralph Lauren
“I see it as a micro-trend that just keeps reappearing season after season through different interpretations,” says Lee Goldup, menswear buyer at Browns. “Raf Simons has been owning the look at Calvin Klein for the past few seasons through shirting, double denim, and cowboy boots. It’s also something Anthony Vaccarello continues to do at Saint Laurent with his slim-fitting pearl-snap, plaid shirts, and cropped wide-collar jackets.”
How To Wear It
Now, if you’re not going to a five-year-old’s birthday party or dressing up as Woody from Toy Story, you might be wondering how on this insane earth you’re going to fit cowboy boots and a red neckerchief into your day-to-day.
Don’t be too scared of the costume connotations, though. The current western trend is less dress-up and more of a development on fashion’s current lust for hardwearing, hearty and utilitarian workwear dripping with Americana. Think of chore jackets, denim and plaid shirts, all in easy-to-wear and on-trend fabrics like corduroy, shearling and suede in practical fits.
And remember to go at this western wear trend one at a time, cowboy, this ain’t no buffalo chase. At its most wearable the trend can simply exist in your shirt choice (this will also stop your work colleagues from asking you whether this cowboy look is your ‘thing’ for the month), or with just an accessory blended into your regular look.
Midnight Cowboy – Jon Voight, 1969
“Opt for a western styled denim, cord or check shirt which is easy to wear casually at the weekends,” recommends Sarah Gilfillan, a personal stylist for men at Sartoria Lab. If you’re in doubt on what a western shirt is, then just look for a curved pattern piece called a yoke on the front and back which is decorated with piping and on occasion embroidered roses. (Note sometimes the yoke can just be found in the shape of the breast pockets).
Downstairs, leather chaps will have you looking like a lost member of an all-male strip revue so just don’t. Light-wash denim is a far better option, while a pair of black slim fitting jeans will balance out the extra extravagance of a louder western shirt. Please do not go for bootcut, unless you want the bottom of your jeans drinking puddle water, or you’re a fanatic admirer of Jeremy Clarkson.
The Key Pieces
The Western Jacket
The most statement way of bringing the western trend into your wardrobe is through the jacket, and the most statement of them all has to be the snakeskin, as famously sported by Nicholas Cage in David Lynch’s Americana epic Wild at Heart. Cage has the right idea in this case, an all-black uniform letting the jacket take centre stage while a pop of the collar gets some gum chewing attitude into the look.
A desert suede jacket is also a strong option, aping the look of the deerskin that cowboys and Native Americans would use in the production of their jackets. These jackets were designed with fringes that allowed the jacket to dry more easily when wet (ever heard of suede protector spray lads?).
These days, a fringe is okay within reason, just think practically about it. If you’re going to have them on your sleeve will they dip down into your dinner? Probably. So don’t do it. The sandy suede is western enough all by itself. Take the cut of the jacket just above the waist for a contemporary look and make sure it cinches at the waist.
Look for a similar fit in the final option the trucker jacket, which could be denim or corduroy, or come with a shearling or borg lining. Having been hijacked by more mainstream style tribes since its inception, the denim jacket was originally invented by Levi Strauss in 1880 for western frontier labourers at a time when the clothes they were wearing weren’t durable or hardwearing enough for the work they were doing. Darker washes and thicker fabric more closely match the look of these early denim jackets, in what is the easiest western jacket style to take.
The Western Shirt
Like a good old steak tartare, its all in the yoke on this one. The yoke was originally designed to provide support for the looser parts of the shirt around the chest and shoulders and became more decorated as a way of distinguishing riders in rodeo cattle herding contests.
“If you like the look of the embroidered western shirts, to keep it more fashion than fancy dress, choose a subtle washed in colour like dirty blue, sea green or rust,” says Gilfillan. “Contrast piping will work well if your shirt has embroidery but avoid fringing as well which would be overkill. Keep the shape fitted for a flattering look.”
A denim or flannel shirt would also work well to echo the hardwearing, workwear nature of western style (think about a faded check on the latter to make it look worn in). Don’t style loose and untucked with a white shirt underneath, or else you’ll be flying wide of the western mark and hitting a section called grunge. Instead, wear it tucked in as traditionally cowboys would have, taking their shirts in a longer cut precisely so they could tuck it in and the fabric wouldn’t pull loose when they were riding horseback.
Spurs might come in handy when you’re trying to get to the front of the queue for the latest Supreme drop but otherwise, they’re just not practical in the 21st century. Traditionally a cowboy boot should also have a stacked heel, round pointed toe and a high shaft that comes up halfway up your calf. The high shaft tends to have a significant impact on your trousers silhouette when worn underneath, and as for wearing them over the top, well good luck trying to go incognito in them.
Instead, the shape of the cowboy boots coming off the catwalk is more like the Chelsea boot only without a pointed toe and with a higher heel. Opt for a dusty brown or even some risky snakeskin shoes to more closely mimic the western style. “Cowboy boots in brown are perfect to mix with denim and they’ll look even better once they get a bit beaten up,” says Gilfillan. “Alongside the boots opt for a straight leg jean in a looser cut than you might be used to wearing, and wear with turn ups to show off those boots.”
By accessories we don’t mean a Pharrell-style hat or a tin-cap star passed down to you by the Milky Bar Kid. Be smart here and play it subtle.
“A tooled leather belt with a statement buckle is an easy way to add a Western feel to your outfit,” says Gilfillan, “or a neckerchief gives a nod to the look. If you have the confidence to pull it off a string tie will look great, but a Stetson is a step too far for everyday wear.”
Play on the contrasts here. A red bandana will provide a striking flash of colour amid an all-black outfit, while a blue one would work well up against a white denim jacket. Take a look at the kerchief wearing Antoni Porowski from Queer Eye who usually wears his with a Breton top for pointers on how to insert it into a contemporary look. Avoid positioning it over the head though – that’s 2Pac, not John Wayne.
Standard menswear rules apply on the buckle too, match your metals and fabrics and don’t get something the size of a tennis trophy. Instead choose a fairly basic belt buckle with subtle western patterned detailing like you would with an embroidered shirt. Then ride off into the sunset, or to your nearest bus stop. Whatever’s closest.