The Way We Wore

From blue jeans to black tie, from Sam Houston to Selena, a rags-to-britches history of fashion, Texas style.

June 1997By Comments

Like “Army intelligence” and “vegetarian chili,” the phrase “Texas fashion” may seem an oxymoron to some. The pervasive cowboy apparel that underpins the Texas myth—boots, hats, bandannas, jeans—still clothes many natives every day. But plenty of high fashion coexists in the state as well, thanks largely to Dallas, where Neiman Marcus first opened its doors in 1907 and the enormous Apparel Mart helped spawn a billion-dollar industry. Inevitably, though, Western wear and haute couture collided—or consorted, depending upon one’s viewpoint (consider the Texas tux, which consists of jeans and boots paired with a dinner jacket and a ruffled shirt). Some Texas duds are just that; others have indisputable style. Read on as we regalia with a look at Lone Star chic and its influence, not just in Dallas but everywear.


Sam Houston, a congressman from Tennessee, shocks his Washington colleagues by presenting himself to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun in buckskins, beads, and feathers. His later sartorial excesses will include a red silk caftan and a jaguar-skin vest.


Colonel Sidney Sherman, credited with coining the phrase “Remember the Alamo,” outshines even commander in chief Sam Houston by riding into the Battle of San Jacinto wearing a satin-lined blue broadcloth uniform lavishly trimmed with gold braid.


Playing the title role in Mazeppa, Adah Isaacs Menken of Nacogdoches is banished from Broadway after she appears in the climactic scene wearing nothing but a flesh-toned body stocking. The “Naked Lady” then moves to Europe, where her admirers include Dickens, Swinburne, and Dumas père.


Texas socialites mourn the effectiveness of the Union blockade, which prevents silks and other fine materials from reaching Confederate beauties. They make do with calico and scale down the circumference of the fashionable hoopskirt from fifteen yards to four.


The six Italian-born Lucchese brothers establish a boot company in downtown San Antonio. Among their customers is Teddy Roosevelt, who will wear Luccheses when, fifteen years later, he charges up San Juan Hill.


Sallie Stinson Hogg, the wife of Governor James Stephen Hogg, wows the inaugural crowd with a salmon-pink satin gown sporting enormous puffed sleeves and a long train. Fashion mavens admire her savvy because the high-necked collar of seed pearls and lace is removable, allowing her to display décolletage when the female bosom is once again deemed au courant. (The petite first lady has a twenty-inch waist; her husband, however, weighs more than three hundred pounds.)


Carrie Marcus Neiman (right), her husband, A.L. Neiman, and her brother, Herbert Marcus, open Neiman Marcus in Dallas.


Gordon Conway, the daughter of wealthy Dallas socialites, becomes an illustrator for Vanity Fair and other magazines. Subsequently she will move into costume and set design for the New York and London theater and the British cinema, helping to create a Jazz Age icon—the willowy, bobbed-haired, free-thinking New Woman.


Levy Brothers Dry Goods Company of Houston helps seal the fate of old-fashioned high-topped, button-up footgear by assuring customers in an advertisement, “There is nothing more satisfactory when the thermometer registers a hundred or so than a cool, perfect-fitting, thoroughly comfortable low shoe … they take the ‘temper’ out of ‘temperature.’”


Travis Banton, a native of Waco, secures his future as a fashion designer with a lavish flapperesque bridal gown for Mary Pickford’s wedding to Douglas Fairbanks. As the boss of Paramount Studios’ fashion department, Banton will subsequently create costumes for Mae West, Marlene Dietrich (above), Greta Garbo, Carole Lombard, and Claudette Colbert. His successor will be the legendary Edith Head.


With the rise of moviemaking, Hollywood gussies up the unadorned shirt of the working cowboy with yokes, fringe, embroidery, piping, and mother-of-pearl snaps to enhance the visual appeal of silver screen heroes. Texan Gene Autry (below) is one of many stars who regularly don the gaudy apparel, bolstering the careers of fashion designers (notably Nudie of Hollywood) who specialize in Western costumery. Life imitates art: Genuine cowboys soon adopt the cinematic look. The heavy tooled-leather belt, often stamped with the wearer’s first name, is a later movie-cowboy look that will also be embraced by real ranch hands.


Dallas hatmaker Harry Rolnick and Michigan millionaire E. R. Byer begin manufacturing men’s dress hats under the name Resistol (because the headband purportedly resisted staining from sweat and hair oils). In 1935 they will add a Western line. It quickly becomes the major rival of the famed Stetson label, the brand long preferred by Texas Rangers.


Neiman Marcus buyer Moira Cullen persuades fashion houses to create a “step-in” dress that buttons up the front, to avoid the hair-mussing caused by pullover styles. Years later, Stanley Marcus, president of the trend-setting store, will call her shirtwaist idea “a major contribution to the dress market.”


The Great Depression proves a boon to Texas cotton farmers and clothing manufacturers, as Americans choose inexpensive domestic fabrics over pricey imported ones. Texas Weekly, a business newsletter, reports that a few years earlier, “King Cotton was at the mercy of the Silk Worm … a cotton dress, outside the kitchen, almost meant social ostracism” but concludes that because cotton fabrics incorporate that “indefinable something,” they are today “the darlings of fashion.”


The Pool Company of Sherman, which makes work garments, expands into the dress-shirt business despite having been warned by New York bigwigs that “while Texas manufacturers might make a success of rough work clothes, well-dressed men simply would not wear a dress shirt that was made in Texas.”


Nonstop parties mark the state’s hundredth birthday, including Neiman Marcus’ first evening fashion show, a cowboy-themed bash that 1,500 Texans attend.


Elsie Frankfurt of Dallas notes of her pregnant elder sister’s clothes: “She looked so horrible I had to do something.” With another sister, she founds the Page Boy maternity shop chain, which features stylish skirts and jackets instead of the shapeless wrappers customarily worn by expectant mothers. The first shop opens in Beverly Hills, drawing rave reviews from such elegant moms-to-be as Loretta Young, Joan Bennett, and Alice Faye.


Texas fashion gets a major national boost when an article on Neiman Marcus in the September 16 issue of Collier’s gushes breathlessly that “the eyes and ears of the fashion world are focused not on Paris. Not on New York. Not on Hollywood. But on Dallas. Yes, Dallas, Texas … because Dallas is the prognosticator of fashions in America.” The next month Life magazine jumps on the bandwagon, devoting three spreads to a Neiman’s winter fashion show that it terms “the most spectacular … ever held in the great Southwest.”


Twelve-year-old John E. Moore of Alice opens a Vogue magazine and instantly decides to become a fashion designer. After a stint creating dresses for Elizabeth Arden, he will strike out on his own and in 1964 design a yellow satin sable-cuffed gown in which Lady Bird Johnson will waltz at her husband’s inauguration.


Neiman Marcus establishes a hosiery club, whose members get first shot at the scarce pairs of nylons available during wartime. The store keeps expert darners on hand to repair runs.


The short-lived Business Girl magazine debuts in Dallas. A typical issue includes articles on how to minimize your height, the correct way to shampoo hair, and Dr Pepper’s four new calendar girls. Ads feature spiffy styles from Dallas fashion labels, including Donovan (“date-time crepe”), Nardis (“wonderful, washable seersucker”), and Hy-Tex (“fashion-correct wear for dude ranchers this fall”).


Chemical giant DuPont patents Dacron polyester, which was test-marketed by a variety of companies including the veteran label Nardis of Dallas. Two decades later, a local publication will brag that Big D “now cuts more polyester than any other city in the world.”


Charlie Dunn settles in as the resident bootmaker at Austin’s venerable Capitol Saddlery Company. Dunn is known for his signature beret and his beautiful boots, made entirely by hand; one steady customer, Jerry Jeff Walker, will later immortalize him in song. “Charlie Dunn, he’s the one to see / Charlie done the boots that are on my feet / It makes Charlie real pleased / To see me walkin’ with ease / Charlie Dunn, he’s the one to see.”


Hordes of Texans and other Americans visiting rural Mexico seize on its hand-painted muslin skirts as colorful mementos of their travels. Often sequined, the circle skirts feature Mexican themes such as cacti, Aztec pyramids, and the national snake-and-eagle motif. The “squaw dress,” a peasant blouse and tiered skirt with rickrack trim, rivals it as the costume of choice for rodeos, barbecues, and square dances.


Neiman Marcus introduces the now legendary His and Her gifts in its lavish Christmas catalog. The premier offerings are matching vicuña coats ($695 each) and Swiss watches ($90 and $145). Subsequent gifts will include nowhere-but-Texas items such as airplanes and ermine bathrobes.


In the wake of the phenomenally popular Disney TV show Davy Crockett, coonskin caps become de rigueur headgear not only for Texas children but for all American kids. Miss Texas 1955, June Prichard, pays tribute to the craze by sporting, for publicity stills, a strapless Davy Crockett swimsuit trimmed in modish mink instead of ragtag raccoon.


Grace Kelly taps Neiman Marcus to supply the bridesmaids’ gowns for her wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco.


The simple wraparound smock designed by Neiman Marcus for its runway models to wear backstage becomes a fashion must. Actresses Mary Martin, Helen Hayes, and Ethel Merman (among others) wear them in their dressing rooms, and American Airlines buys three thousand for its stewardesses to put on before serving food.


Lyndon Johnson’s daughter Luci asks Neiman Marcus to design her wedding dress. Shortly before the wedding, Stanley Marcus realizes that the store’s bridal designer of choice, Priscilla of Boston, is a nonunion shop— a situation that may prove embarrassing for the Great Society president. Though the gown is almost completed, before Luci walks down the aisle an International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union shop sews in its label.


Kerrville designer Enid Collins markets a purse that is simply a wooden box silk-screened with a variety of designs and lavishly studded with rhinestones. Within five years the demand will be so great that Collins’ Medina factory will turn out a thousand bags a week, many with Texas themes such as horses, roadrunners, and money.


Trammell Crow makes his name (and, to some extent, Dallas’) by building the Apparel Mart, a million-square-foot complex incorporating designers, manufacturers, retailers, models, and 1,400 showrooms. In its first year the vast center attracts 10,000 buyers from across the nation.


Dallas-based Braniff Airlines enlists the fabled Italian designer Emilio Pucci to devise groovy new uniforms for its stewardesses. The result: psychedelic tunics with matching tights, shiny vinyl ankle boots in hot pink and avocado green, zippered jackets with modified Nehru collars, and a choice of Carnaby Street caps or clear acrylic astronaut-style helmets. (The “space-age plastic” of the helmets— touted as highly durable—quickly begins to deteriorate.)


Displaying his gall- bladder-surgery scar, President Johnson also flashes his gold Rolex. Admiring Texans promptly make it the state’s preferred timepiece; jewelry stores in major Texas cities run out, forcing customers to vie for places on waiting lists. Wearers of the hefty status symbol include Darrell Royal, Red Adair, Willie Nelson, and Racehorse Haynes.


Levi Strauss of San Francisco opens its first factory in El Paso. Thirty years later, the city will be the blue-jean capital of the world, and the company will employ a total of 10,000 Texans there and in eight other towns to manufacture its classic, denim cowboy pants. However, the upstart Wrangler company, which will begin production in El Paso in 1969, soon surpasses the California corporation in regional popularity; in 1992 almost half of the 32 million pairs of jeans sold in Texas will be Wranglers.


After the success of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, based on the crime spree of the notorious Dallas outlaws (played by Faye Dunaway, above, and Warren Beatty), a thirties-fashion craze sweeps the nation.


An ad campaign for the Chrysler Corporation featuring a curvy blonde in a white Stetson (“The Dodge Rebellion wants you!”) rejuvenates sales of the classic Western hat. Dodge dealers across the nation don Stetsons to emphasize their good-guy image.


Robert Sakowitz impresses the international fashion world by persuading André Courrèges, the Parisian inventor of the miniskirt, to market his elegant new ready-to-wear line in wild and woolly Houston. He also sweet-talks Yves Saint Laurent into giving the Sakowitz stores exclusive Texas rights to his designs, leaving Neiman Marcus fuming.


Fourteen-year-old Jerry Hall of Mesquite is rejected by Dallas’ doyenne of modeling, Kim Dawson, because she is “too tall and too outrageous-looking.” The five-eleven, megamaned Hall will go on to grace hundreds of magazine covers, lend her sexy appeal to print ads for L’Oréal, Revlon, and Charles of the Ritz, and become equally famous for being Mick Jagger’s main squeeze.


Tex Schramm creates the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, whose belted hot pants, paired with midriff-and-bosom-baring bolero tops, promptly spark scandalized reactions and cheesecake posters in approximately equal amounts. Southwest Airlines flight attendants also bare their legs in short shorts, spurring a burst of popularity for the Dallas company.


A mannequin manufacturer bases its new model on the refined face and size 6 figure of Pam Sakowitz, the wife of Robert Sakowitz. The mannequins appear in the family’s Houston flagship as well as in stores nationwide.


To the horror of his buyers, Robert Sakowitz orders the phrase “Damn I’m Good” printed on ties, towels, bath mats, money clips, and bracelets. The gimmick proves a winner, selling steadily for two solid years.


Texas lawmakers spurn a bill introduced by Representative Pike Powers of Beaumont declaring blue jeans the official state costume.


A nationwide outbreak of Texas fever, inspired by the movie Urban Cowboy along with the popular “outlaw” music of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, heats up the Western-wear industry. Upstart places such as glitzy Cutter Bill’s of Houston (named after owner Rex Cauble’s cutting horse) popularize hip kicker accessories like silver tips for boots and collars as well as bolo-tie slides inset with semiprecious gems. Venerable emporiums like San Angelo’s Holland’s and Fort Worth’s Luskey’s also benefit from the Western craze. So do celebrities such as rodeo champion Larry Mahan, who lends his name to a collection of men’s Western wear. Women’s designers frantically churn out fringed, beaded, rhinestoned, and pearl-studded ready-to-wear; the Western styles are reborn as “Texas glitz.”


Nine-year-old Todd Oldham of Keller stitches together two pillowcases to make his sister an op-art sundress. Fifteen years later, he will be a bona fide big-time designer, known for his wacky, witty ready-to-wear; his clothes will be modeled by Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss, and RuPaul and purchased by Susan Sarandon, Rosie O’Donnell, and Madonna.


Jaclyn Smith of Houston, best known for her Charlie’s Angels role, endorses a line of inexpensive “classics” for Kmart that will ultimately range from plus-size, control-top pantyhose to polyester “shantung” suits.


Governor Ann Richards wears a suit made of Texas mohair to her inauguration.


A former model and assistant to Victor Costa, the Dallas designer known for affordable knockoffs, files a lawsuit charging him with sexual harassment. Two years later, citing heavy legal fees, Costa will file for bankruptcy.


Vogue magazine writer Vicki Woods attends a style show and brunch in Houston, where she marvels that she has “never seen so much gold . . . so much red and purple and yellow, or so much big blond hair. (Houston hair defies the laws of physics.)” Aghast at the local matrons’ attempts to dress up simple Ralph Lauren suits, the writer notes that she “abandoned journalistic neutrality” to protest, whereupon a belle replied, “What separates us from the beasts is their failure to accessorize.”


The Smithsonian Institution adds to its collection of historical apparel the glittery pantsuit worn by tejano singer Selena in a performance at Houston’s Astrodome on February 28, 1995, a month before her murder in Corpus Christi.


Flush with the success of its ultracool timepieces, packaged in funky retro tins, the Fossil company of Richardson expands into the production of sunglasses and leather goods.


The Texas Fashion Collection, housed at the University of North Texas in Denton, marks its twenty-fifth anniversary in May with an exhibit of power suits worn by famous Texas women, such as Ann Richards, Barbara Bush, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Mary Kay Ash. The exhibit also includes a Rudy Gernreich topless bathing suit, a black velvet Balenciaga dress trimmed in ermine, and a Givenchy pantsuit with a hot pink mink top.

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