Waxing Nostalgic

Designers of New Western shirts may be refashioning history, but they’re no dummies.

EMBROIDERED, FRINGED, PIPED, YOKED, AND OTHERWISE embellished, the Western shirt is the West’s equivalent of a national costume. With mother-of-pearl snaps, satin-stitched arrows, or a couple of appliquéd cacti or cow skulls, a plain old shirt becomes to the West what the kimono is to Japan or the sari to India—wearable myth.

So who better to display the best of Western fashion than the legends themselves? Or, at least, the next best thing: their replicas, as photographed at two Texas wax museums, the Palace of Wax in Grand Prairie and the Plaza Theatre of Wax in San Antonio. These classically styled shirts, both vintage and new, are displayed most, er, fittingly on Davy Crockett, Jesse James, and their fellow heroes, many re-created by Texas’ reigning wax artist, Peter Castillo.

But wait: There’s just one snag in this vast fabric of romance. The Western shirt as we know it today didn’t exist in the Old West. Phillip Ashton Rollins, in his 1936 book, The Cowboy , notes that the typical cowpoke’s shirt was “quite subdued.” The gaudy, decorated shirt has always been the province not of the cattleman but of the entertainer. Buffalo Bill Cody, whose Wild West Show debuted in 1883, was the first to gussy up his stars (and himself) with the elaborately worked buckskins and such, the better to awe his audience. Similarly, illustrators of early dime novels ensured that the protagonists were as dramatically appareled as imperiled. When motion pictures supplanted those diversions, the costume designer (and the stars’ vanity) carried the torch. From Tom Mix to Gene Autry, celluloid cowboys were frilled and flounced to a fare-thee-well.

By and large, these creators of Western glitz remain nameless; plaudits were reserved for big-budget names, such as Edith Head. But their influence is best exemplified by Nudie, a would-be cowboy star whose background as a tailor’s apprentice led him to a successful Los Angeles business customizing original stage wear for musicians. Though he concocted outfits for stars such as Roy Rogers, the consummate drugstore cowboy, Nudie’s best-known clients were country musicians like Lefty Frizzell—for whom he created the first rhinestone-cowboy suit in 1952—and later, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn.

Inevitably, fans of cowboy stars and singers wanted to emulate their idols—a desire that paralleled the increasing availability of mass-produced ready-to-wear. By the forties, manufacturers such as California’s H Bar C and Denver’s Rockmount Ranch Wear were marketing flashy Western shirts. (Rockmount, in fact, claims to have first used snaps in lieu of buttons.) The shirts sold briskly then—and they sell even more briskly now. Western fashion, a phrase once considered an oxymoron, is currently haute and hot. For example, a Central Texas wholesaler of vintage Western wear sold one mint cowgirl outfit to a New York retailer for $700, who resold it for an astonishing $4,000 to supermodel Christie Brinkley.

Capitalizing on the craze, several regional and nationwide clothing designers—including H Bar C and Rockmount—are marketing thirties-and-forties-style Western shirts; ten appear in these pages, along with tow vintage versions. So what if they aren’t authentically wild and woolly? Neither were the originals. Like the Longhorn, Colt .45, and Billy the Kid, Western shirts are indigenous not the American West but to the idea of it. That’s not history; that’s entertainment.

The photo images by Silvia Otte are not available online. To find out how to order a copy of this article, please go to Texas Monthly back issues .

Captions to the photo images in this article.

GERONIMO
Sexy-cowgirl shirt, by Katy K. Designs. $200. At Rancho Loco in Dallas and Dream Merchant in Houston.

LIZ TAYLOR AND JAMES DEAN
Taos red cowboy shirt with white fringe, by H Bar C. $86-$90. At many Western stores and boutiques, including Ryon’s in Fort Worth, Gordon’s Men’s Store in Houston, the Horseman’s Store in Orange, and Rancho Loco. Black cowboy shirt with faux cowhide yoke, by Katy K. Designs. $190. At Rancho Loco and Dream Merchant.

JOHN WAYNE
Frankenstein-stitch shirt, in navy and red with silver Lurex piping, by Katy K. Designs. $200. At Rancho Loco.

ANNIE OAKLEY
Vintage tan-and-brown suede-fringed shirt, by Hilbilly Westerns of Denver. $250. At Flashback in Austin.

WILLIAM B. TRAVIS AND DAVY CROCKETT
Vintage gray-and-navy shirt with stars on yoke, by H Bar C. $285. At Flashback. Embroidered brown-suede cowboy shirt, by Billy Martin’s. $525. At Billy Martin’s in New York City.

JESSE JAMES
Hillbilly Boogie shirt, by Katy K. Designs. $200. At Rancho Loco.

THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES
Top left: Red-and-black cowgirl shirt with white fringe, by Jou Jou. $57. At all Palais Royal, Foley’s and Gadzooks stores; at Diana Esber, Primrose, and Terry Costa in Dallas; and at Skibell’s in Lubbock.

Top right: Boots shirt in turquoise, red, and black with embroidery and boots on yoke, by Cowgirlz. $100. At Boots and Jeans in Amarillo and Rancho Loco.

Bottom left: Nevada shirt in baby blue with blue embroidery, by H Bar C. $65. At Rancho Loco.

Bottom right: Arrowhead shirt in white with black embroidered yoke, by H Bar C. $65. At Rancho Loco.

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