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September 18, 2023

Boots, Chaps, and Cowboy Hats...Nothing Else Matters

By Susan C. Waters

From head to toe, every part of a cowboy's attire had a purpose. On a cattle-drive trail, sometimes 1,000 or more miles long, extra gear and clothing could not be brought along. Mountains, steep ravines, and unruly brush meant that anything unessential needed to be left home. Whatever one wore had to be durable. Western cowboys mainly wore collarless shirts, a vest to stash personal items, sturdy denim jeans for the long ride, and often chaps, which provided protection against the landscape. Last, but certainly not least, were the finishing touches to the cowboy's work-wear: his hat, bandana, and boots.

The cowboy hat has its origins in Mexico, and before that, in Spain, where it was called a "poblano," a wide brimmed hat for shade that had a flat crown. In Mexico, the poblano became the sombrero, a hat with a high crown which protected not only the head and neck, but also the shoulders. When the Conquistador Don Cristóbal de Oñate crossed the Rio Grande at El Paso in 1595 with an extensive entourage plus cattle and sheep numbering 7,000, he is pictured as wearing armor, but he may have well wished that it was a poblano or sombrero in the unforgiving sun and heat of New Mexico's Jornada del Muerto.

In the days of cattle runs from Texas, the hat which became popular was the brainstorm of a young Easterner who had traveled West to cure his tuberculosis, John Stetson. His idea caught on quickly: a felted hat made from fur which had a wide brim. Perfect. It was waterproof and could withstand bad weather and all the uses a cowboy had for a hat: among them, retrieving water, fanning a fire, and signaling others. At night, the hat would make for a nice pillow. By chance or luck or both, Stetson's 1865 invention was concurrent with the first big cattle runs which took place after the American Civil War. Even after the era of the great cattle runs, cowboy hats were popular, even on the East Coast. A 1900 Sears Catalogue lists one for nearly $5 with postage, the equivalent of $138 today. In our world, cowboy hats run from the cheap, imported straw hats to Stetsons which range from a hundred to several thousand dollars. Cowboy hats can be made of straw, but the iconic cowboy hat is felted from animal fur by the use of water and/or steam, making it waterproof, light-weight, and durable. Creases and folds in the hat and brim make for different styles, and it is said that people knew what company or ranch a person was from by indentations in his or her hat. Inside the hat, a bow symbol is a remembrance for the people who made cowboy hats in the late 19th century. Mercury was used in manufacturing hats, and the poisonous effects of the chemical were unknown or ignored at the time. "Mad as a hatter" was a common term for the insane and many hatters in the U.S. and Europe suffered from debilitating emotional disturbances, mental confusion, and uncontrollable tremors.

Of all the cowboy's clothing, the bandana or kerchief is perhaps the most versatile. J. Frank Dobie, who wrote extensively about Texas and the Southwest, said it should be the "flag of the range country." In the book A Vaquero of the Brush County, Dobie says that "When the cowboys of West make their final parade on the grassy shores of Paradise, the guidon [banner] that leads them should be a bandana handkerchief." Dobie lists a number of uses: a strainer for dirty water, a way to tie down a hat on a windy day, a band aid for cuts, and a sling for broken bones. One of the more unexpected uses that Dobie describes is a noose to hang a man! A bandana could keep a cowboy's ears warm, and it would keep his neck from being sunburned. They also made for a good dust filter, especially for the men at the tail end of the drive who were enveloped by dust, though one wonders if these cowboys, assigned a low-level job that no-one wanted, had enough money to buy the silk kerchiefs which were better filters.

Good boots were indispensable on the trail. Western boots were, in part, the adaptation of Northern European riding boots by German cobblers who immigrated to Texas and Kansas. One assumes that the decoration on the top of the boot was for show, but it was pragmatic. Stitching kept the boot top from slipping down; the whole idea of the long boot shaft was to protect the wearer from thorns, brush, and well, yes, rattlesnakes. Loose-fitting through the shaft, the boot would be pulled off by the bodyweight of the cowboy if he had the misfortune of falling off a horse with a boot stuck in the stirrup. Narrow-toed, underslung boots with a high heel and a smooth sole were favored by many because they allowed the cowboy to quickly slip in and out of the stirrups. The high heel prevented the boot from sliding clear through the stirrups. Being entangled in the stirrups could lead to disaster: a cowboy could be dragged by a startled horse. While the traditional Western boot is what people know from the movies, the other type of cowboy boot, and the one favored in some rodeo events, is the "roper." It has a low heel and is much more conducive to walking, something the cattle-drive cowboy was not doing a lot of. A roper has a rounded or squared-off toe and a more flexible sole. Cowhide was the material used in early boots, and later it was calfskin. Today, a real or wannabe cowboy or girl can have boots made of anything, from deerskin, kangaroo and ostrich skin, to eel, python, and alligator hide. Price is what one can afford. One customer with a lot of change in his pocket spent $75,000 for a pair at Tres Outlaws in El Paso, Texas. Gold and silver historical coins valued at $18,000 decorated the boots, and the history of Mexico was etched into the hide.

Why would someone pay so much for a symbol of a life that only existed at its peak for about two decades, from about 1866 to 1886? By the turn of the century, the cattle drives were almost gone, and barbed wire was stretched along properties as far as one could see. Hollywood has a lot to do with the continuing interest in the cowboy life. Westerns were and are still watched all over the world. In the United Kingdom, serious sounding clubs exist, some featuring Western enactments. Germany and France have their own variations on the same theme. Approximately 160 cowboy clubs exist in Germany with people becoming weekend cowboys, living the Westerner's life of 130 years ago. As far east as China and Japan, Western-themed attractions exist, from clubs and bars to riding grounds for horses and camels in China. And the list goes on . . . Maybe Louis L'Amour was right when he said, "There's a little cowboy in all of us, a little frontier."

Article © Susan C. Waters. All rights reserved.
Published on 2020-08-31
Image(s) are public domain.
1 Reader Comments
Harvey Silverman
11:49:35 AM
Nice piece. Fun to read.
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