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A cowboy Christmas.

A cowboy Christmas

"The cow-boy's outfit of clothing, as a rule, is of the very best from hat to boots. He may not have a dollar in the world, but he will wear good, substantial clothing, even if he has to buy it on a credit.' So cowboy W.S. James praised the clothes of his calling in 1893. Today, Western wear still earns praises, and customers still buy it--and often on a credit. Whether worn in Tokyo or Tonopah, it is America's most American clothing; it periodically becomes trendy, but never, unlike lesser garb, really goes out of style.

Perhaps that's because it offers more than style. With Shaker chairs, Navajo rugs, and other exemplars of American folk art, the cowboy hat, boot, belt, bandanna, and slicker possess the innate handsomeness that comes from being useful.

If you're Christmas shopping, you can begin nearby, at stores listed in the yellow pages under Western Apparel, Boots, or Hats. We offer some shopping tips here; see page 62 for mail-order suppliers, including specialty shops and custom manufacturers.

Vaqueros to buckaroos

What is today a $7 billion industry had its origins in the simple garb worn by the vaqueros of New Spain: a sombrero with a low crown and straight brim, a cotton shirt, pants, and jacket. California vaqueros later ornamented this costume--hand-braiding reatas, trimming saddles and belts with turquoise and silver, trimming protective chaparejos with fleece--while the Texas cowboy held to a more somber austerity. Along the way, the traditions merged. La reata became the lariat, chaparejos got shortened to chaps, and the California vaquero metamorphosed into the Nevada buckaroo.

There were regional variations. By the 1870s, the J.B. Stetson Company had helped standardize the cowboy hat with its widely popular 4-inch-brimmed Boss of the Plains model. But cowboys heading for the windy Northern Plains found it hard to keep wide-brimmed hats on their heads. Montana cowboys thus favored narrower brims; they also liked hats creased with four peaks. Nevadans wore their pants outside their boots; cowboys elsewhere might tuck pants inside.

In Montana or Nevada or anywhere else, the cowboy's apparel was made for work. Pants were tight to obviate the need for suspenders, which got in the way while roping. Pockets were placed not on the hip but in front, so objects wouldn't slide out when the cowboy hunkered at a campfire. The bandanna, or wild rag, soaked up sweat, blocked dust, and kept him warm.

Even the most ostentatious items in the cowboy's outfit, his boots and his hat, were eminently practical. The hat's wide brim gave shade, and its high crown helped keep the head a little cooler. If the felt was of high enough quality, the hat could hold water, its headband letting it retain shape when wet. If made of rattlesnake skin, the band was said also to be a potent specific against headache.

As for the boot, it was costly: Montana's famous cattle baron Granville Stuart recalled that in the 1880s his cowboys would pay $25 (half a month's pay) for a good French calf boot. But the high leather tops shielded the wearer from twigs and rocks, the sharp heels steadied him during roping, and the pointed toes allowed him to slip easily in and out of the stirrup. The boot was also tight, too tight for walking long distances--but what cowboy would walk when he could ride?

Utilitarian stuff, then. But if along with being useful the cowboy's gear happened to look sharp, he didn't mind. As W.S. James admitted, the cowboy "has his flights of fancy as clearly defined as the most fashionable French belle.'

Nor was the rest of the nation immune. Show business discovered the cowboy: Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows gave way to Tom Tix horse operas, and Mix himself gave way to cowboys Cooper and Wayne and Eastwood--and each new generation of audiences applauded and realized you didn't have to endure a sixmonth cattle drive to yearn for a hat, a pair of boots, and some jeans.

Craftsmen large and small

Purveyors of clothes to cowboys have roots as deep-entwined in the West as the cowboy himself. Levi Strauss stitched his first pair of pants in 1853, though it took a few years to rivet the denim and dye it blue, and many more to call the product jeans. The White Handmade Boot Company has been producing lace-up packer boots in Spokane since 1915. For 60 years, J.M. Capriola of Elko, Nevada, has offered (in one admirer's words) "everything the cowboy needs but the horse.'

Sharing the market are scattered individual craftsmen who produce Western wear in traditional ways. Elko's Eddie Brooks ships his hand-tooled saddles, chaps, and belts around the world. Tom Hirt of The Weather Hat Shop in Penrose, Colorado, makes custom hats on wooden blocks that date back to the 1880s.

Shopping for Western wear: the basics

Western-wear stores can help you cross off numerous names on your Christmas list. For serious horsemen, there are saddles, chaps, and the like. For the horse-infatuated (say, any 12-year-old viewer of The Black Stallion), there are stocking stuffers like equestrian stationery and books. For dudes who don't know a flank from a fetlock, there are shirts and pants, and hand-tooled belts, wallets, and purses.

Three items merit special attention.

Boots. Any old-time cowboy would be astonished by the current array. If you want to preen like Dolly Parton in burgundy ostrich, connive like J.R. Ewing in python, or strut like the commander of Fort Bridger in replicas of 1870s cavalry issues, you can find the boot to suit.

You can buy factory-made boots for $85 to $500. In general, the amount and quality of the leather used determines the price.

Less expensive boots may have leather tops, manmade materials elsewhere; better boots are all leather, from outsoles to insoles, heel to lining. Thicker leather--thickness ranges from 3 1/2 to 7 ounces--costs more but assures a more durable if less sleekly fashionable boot. (Among exotic leathers, some--notably elephant and shark--are more durable than cowhide; others are less so. All raise the price of a boot.) A highquality boot has a steel shank in the arch, anchored with wooden pegs.

A store-bought boot should fit snugly on the instep but should not be uncomfortably tight: toes should not be cramped, and you should feel some slippage in the heel.

Custom and semi-custom bootmakers are another option (see page 62). They'll send you a catalog of leathers, finishes, and toe, heel, and top-stitching styles, along with a fitting kit. You return your measurements with a deposit, then receive your boots.

These cost more: semi-custom boots (made to order, but selected from a more limited range of styles) run $150 or more; custom boots cost anywhere from $300 to $900.

In return, the makers promise superior leather, greater attention to detail, and individualized fit (the boot will be shaped on a wooden last custom-made from your measurements)--helpful for hard-to-fit feet. It's too late to guarantee arrival of custom boots by Christmas--most bootmakers require four to six weeks to make your boots, and some one-man shops have months-long backlogs--but the kit could serve as a token of a gift to come.

Hats. As in the 1800s, when the hunt for pelts spurred exploration of the West, felt made from beaver fur is the material of choice. But wool felt and straw make less expensive alternatives.

Fur felt is graded by "Xs.' There's no industry-wide standard, but in general the most expensive 20X fur felt hat will contain a higher proportion of dense, high-quality beaver fur; a 4X fur felt hat will contain less beaver fur and more of other kinds, usually rabbit. Prices for fur felt hats range from $90 to $300.

Wool makes a handsome hat, too, though it lacks the soft finish and resilience of fur. Prices for wool felt hats start at around $30. You can also get hats made from blends of wool and fur.

In summer, many horsemen doff fur and don straw; good straw hats start at $40.

Creasing? Many hats come ready-creased. But for fur felt, the creasing can be as individualized as a fingerprint: many shops but hats uncreased, then let the customer choose the topography of ridges he or she feels best expresses the cowboy soul.

For custom makers, see page 62.

Outerwear. Perhaps the hottest item to-day is the duster, whose to-the-heel style protects (as its name suggests) against trail dust. The heavier canvas versions also give some protection against rain and cold; for still more protection, some dusters have outer nylon layers coated with polyurethane. Prices begin at $90.

Photo: Shearling coat is at Shepler's, in Denver. Wagon wheels ornament Chet's, in Douglass, Wyoming

Photo: Flamboyant but functional, Tony Lama backcut boots of peanut brittle boa inspire a try-on at Western Ranchman Outfitters in Cheyenne

Photo: Back near the saddle again: quartet of Nevada buckaroos shows off gear available at Elko-based J. M. Capriola Company, outfitter to cowboys for nearly 60 years. On view: classic yoked and pearl-snapped shirts, lamb-trimmed chinks (riding chaps), white canvas duster, leather saddlebag, wild rag neckerchief, denim jacket and pants, cowboy and lace-up packer boots, spurs, ropes, and, of course, the hat--wide-brimmed, open-crowned, and creased to the owner's specifications

Photo: 80 years of the cowboy image

1907: Buffalo Bill's chief rider, Harry Brennan, took cowboy horsemanship and clothes to audiences around the world

1920s: Hollywood's Tom Mix set style with 10-gallon hat, gaudy shirt, leather chaps, solemn mien

1987: Fringed leather jacket, straw cowboy hat, yoked blouse, and silver collar tips and earrings update Western look for today
COPYRIGHT 1987 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Dec 1, 1987
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