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Assignment: Victorian Western Wear - Origins

I am always fascinated by the history of things. So, I thought I'd consider just how men's "Western" wear developed. It seems to me that Western wear takes elements from at least four different cultures -- English, Spanish, French, and Native American. But I believe the key is that Western clothing, basically, is work clothing.

"As early as 1724, Hugh Jones wrote in The Present State of Virginia that Williamsburg's leading families dressed like the gentry in London." (Baumgartin, Linda, "Looking at Eighteenth Century Clothing.") Europe was the fount of fashion for Americans throughout the 16th through 19th centuries. In fact, it wasn't until after the turn of the 20th century that New York became a "fashion" center on par with the European capitals of Paris and London. While the formal clothing of Americans kept up with fashion, the informal, i.e., work clothing, was older, out of fashion, less valuable, and sturdier clothing. By its very hand-me-down nature, work clothes were one to two generations behind the current fashions.

It's interesting to note that the costume of the American settler in Western Pennsylvania of the French and Indian Wars (about 1758) or in pre-Revolutionary Kentucky (NOTE: This picture is Daniel Boone leading settlers over the mountains to Kentucky, by George Caleb Bingham.) has the same elements as the costume of the American settler of California (1848) and the American settler of the Northwest (1870s and 1880s). The men's costume was a shirt, a sleeveless vest, a coat, trousers (in the earlier years, knee-breeches, in the 19th century, long trousers), and some sort of foot covering. However, all pieces of this clothing had to be sturdy, long-wearing, inexpensive, and convenient to acquire. Here's another view of Daniel Boone (1861), which shows his costume more clearly.

What better to fill this bill than the clothing of the Native Americans, made from animal skins? Leather wears better than cloth and can be acquired through hunting. It's not necessary to send off to the East for expensive new clothes. The French traders and trappers of the old Northwest territory knew this and passed this knowledge on to the "Mountain Men" of the 1820s and 1830s. If you look at the paintings of George Catlin, you can see that the costume is a simple buckskin shirt, with a round or keyhole neck opening, a pair of buckskin trousers, a hat or cap, and moccasins or boots. (The keyhole shirt style was also a typical fabric shirt style until late in the 19th century.) You don't have to hem or finish off buckskin to keep it from raveling so it is easier to fashion into clothing; whatever decoration you add, such as fringe or beading, is for aesthetics. (Although the buckskin fringe could be used for small repairs of one's tack.) Buckskin does not have to be washed as cloth does (maybe that's why one never wore one's "buckskins" into the parlor in polite company), and it stops the wind of the Great Plains better than fabric.

Most shirts up until the early 19th century were the type with a keyhole neck opening, with either a plain or a placket opening. The bib shirt appeared as a dress shirt by 1848, the beginning of the Gold Rush in California. Apparently, the bib style was used as a fireman's uniform shirt before the Civil War; it also was used as a military shirt by cavalry regiments during the Civil War (click on the U.S. Civil War coat for views of bib style jackets and shirts). My guess is that because many men who served during the Civil War went West in droves, wearing their former uniforms, the bib shirt became normal fashion. The fashion was very utilitarian in that the bib protected the upper chest from the elements better than an open neckline or a button front shirt would. In the later Victorian period, the bib shirt was a typical element of a Western costume. An interesting sidenote -- as I searched about for information, I discovered that the Native American fringing and decoration apparently carried over into the bib style shirt. Some Native American clothing appears to have beading and decoration that resembles a bib. In addition, there are many photographs of Native Americans wearing the bib necklaces that look so much like a bib shirt.

I suspect that the contrasting color combinations used for Western shirts are a result of the need to create clothing from whatever fabric was available. The advent of the yoked shirt, also about 1848, gave the opportunity to use smaller pieces of fabric to make a shirt, even if the fabric pieces were in different colors.

Another Western fashion feature taken from the military were the riding pants with the seat and inner legs reinforced by leather, with leather chaps to protect the legs from brush. These reinforced riding pants are also a feature of the Spanish style of clothing from California and Texas. This surely is a practical measure for a culture in which the horse is the main means of transportation. The Spanish ownership of southern California and Texas ended in the 1840s, so this fashion harkens back to an earlier period of colonization.

The vest doesn't seem to have changed much from the early 19th century, and differs from the Revolutionary-era vest in the V-neckline with shawl lapels, and the waist length. The vest is also available in single and double-breasted styles.

After reviewing many of the feature pieces of men's Western wear, it seems to me that what we call American Western fashion developed from European clothing styles popular between 1820s and 1860s, and then underwent a separate evolution from the mainstream of European fashion until, by the 1880s and 1890s, it has a uniquely American look. When you look at a European hunting costume, and then at the Western working costume, it becomes apparent that the environment has deeply affected the development of these men's clothing.

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Updated on January 13, 2005
by Jean L. Cooper
Copyright 2001 Jean L. Cooper