“Cowboy butts drive me nuts”
April 10, 2023
Picture this: A tall ruggedly handsome man stands in the doorway as he scuffs the mud off his boots. The pale moonlight behind him illuminates a deep blue sky and gives a bit of mystery to the silhouette of this man. A small stack of smoke is visible trailing from the tip of his cigarette, drawing your eye up from his Marlboro to the holster on his hip. As he enters the room, his smile catches a glimmer, and he tips his hat and says “Howdy” with a bit of shyness.
It is easy to see what I was describing, and I hope you caught on. If you saw the typical cowboy, you are in the majority. We all know this character, and we for the most part love him. We love the heroic acts that he does, the slight twang in his voice and the clothing he wears.
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of joining some friends speaking on a panel at the History Fair here at SIUC. Our topic was “How American fashion and media from spaghetti westerns clashes with the reality of historical black and indigenous cowboys.” In this seminar, we discussed how the depiction of cowboys in the movies is almost always completely wrong, from the romances, down to the things that they wore. I was very excited to speak of this topic, and see quite an importance in this discussion, both in general history and fashion history.
I went into this small research hole learning more and more random facts about cowboys, reading stories both fact and fiction, and realized many things about cowboys that I simply just never realized. Something that really interests me is how overly romanticized cowboys are as people, as well as their lifestyle, and their clothing. When I even say cowboy, you already have a picture in your mind, and I guarantee he is wearing blue denim jeans, boots and a hat. We all already have this picture of a cowboy in our mind, whether he be from a fictional movie or someone from our real life, but never get them mixed up, because it could be very embarrassing.
When I was six, my friend was having a birthday party. His family was a little more country than I was, and I wanted to look as if I was part of the crowd. I thought very long and hard about what to wear; I decided that I wanted to wear my version of country, which I would like to picture as rhinestone cowboy. I owned some cowboy boots because every little boy I knew owned some, and also they were a way to wear heels without being made fun of. I paired them with some boot cut levis and a yellow gingham shirt with a low set yoke and pearl snap buttons.
I remember thinking about how cool this outfit was to me, but I also remember arriving at the party and seeing my friend and his family and being surprised that none of them were dressed like me. Little me had to immediately address this to myself and unsnap the top snap to appear more relaxed. I was embarrassed and honestly still am. I had generalized a whole family and played dress up.
Western movies have been around since the beginning of moving pictures. Usually, these movies depict a heroic figure, doing things like saving damsels in distress and being overly manly. These men are praised in the films for doing acts of “saving the day!” which usually entails fighting and slaughtering villainized indigenous people and Mexicans. This idea of the virile man was placed perfectly to fuel both the romanization of cowboys and the idea that people of different descents were the enemy.
In fashion, acknowledgement to the inspiration and use of different culture’s clothing can sometimes be hard to pull out of designers. When doing research on western fashions and honing in specifically on cowboys, you’ll learn that they wore what they could get, they borrowed from different cultures and everything had a purpose.
The cowboy hat was directly inspired by the sombreros worn by Mexican Vaqueros, and it served the obvious purpose of keeping the sun off the face and keeping you cool. We typically see cowboys wearing these hats in depictions through film, but in reality, many did just wear sombreros or even bowler hats. The bandana as we know it now is completely just a fashion statement and can be bought in a plethora of colors, but in the beginning, they were mostly just scrap fabric or rags, and they served many purposes. The bandana could be used around the face to keep dust from entering your nose and mouth, but they could also be used for washing up or even bandaging a wound in a pinch. Denim jeans are stylish and comfortable but serve the purpose of safety. With the durability of the fabric and the strength of the seams, these pants were perfect for working cattle.
With the accidental swagger in western/cowboy clothing, especially with it amplified by the media, after World War II, western clothing started to become a fashion movement. We saw children’s play with clothes that look like little rodeo men and dungarees with play guns and holsters. This lasted through the 1950s and even inspired many men and women’s garments.
In the 1960s, a bit of western wear was incorporated into hippie fashions, which escorted us to the tight denim pants and big belt buckles of the 1970s.
The ‘70s brought a whole new genre of cowboy/western, adding this bit of sexuality that had always been more subdued to the surface. Younger men of good physique started wearing things that resembled the ruggedly handsome hero from the movies of their childhood. Hair got more messy, mustaches and sideburns became more popular, and boots came back into the mainstream. Mexican leatherwork became popular, and beading was starting to be less eurocentric looking and visibly inspired by beadwork from indigenous American Mexican tribes.
This look is kind of what we associate with 1970’s fashion, this almost overly sexualized figure of being. I always think of the Marlboro man when summoning a sexy man to mind. The actor who played that character was just a simple farmer, picked for his handsomeness. With this image of the sexy cowboy being so pushed, we saw an infatuation with these sexy men. When the graphic baby tee craze went around in the early 2000s, I distinctly remember seeing girls wearing shirts that perfectly describe how I think society sees cowboys. The shirts read “Cowboy butts drive me nuts!” This sexualizes a non sexual job, but amplifies the natural sexyness of the man himself.
We have a repertoire of actors that promote this image of the sexy cowboy like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, and movies that have sexual natures like Brokeback Mountain. We have this image of the cowboy and their lifestyle, but it completely differs from history, allowing it to glitz and glam reality.