The Way We Wore

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

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.

1831

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.

1836

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.

1861

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.

1865

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.

1883

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.

1891

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.)

1907

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

1915

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.

1915

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.’”

1920

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.

1920’s

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.

1927

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.

1928

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.”

1931

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.”

1931

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.”

1936

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

1938

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,

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