Cowboy Nation: Clothes Make the Cowpoke

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, April 1995

Cowboy Nation: Clothes Make the Cowpoke

From the homespun to the highflautin, the best in buckaroo gear
By Sara Corbett

In a marketplace choked with faux western wear, it's important to keep in mind that cowboys, real cowboys, are discriminating creatures. They wear Wranglers, not Levi's. They drive American trucks, not Japanese. They wear black hats in winter, white hats in summer. Real cowpokes may favor oxidized sterling-silver belt buckles engraved with elaborate steer-skull and lone-star designs, but only cowposeurs wear turquoise. And for every thousand Gene Autry look-alikes out there, only a handful qualify as the real Magoo. Whether you're a rancher or a roper or simply a dedicated follower of cowboy culture, here's a guide for everything from the homespun to the highfalutin.

A good hat is made from at least 50 percent beaver felt, with rabbit fur making up the difference. You tend to get more beaver for each buck you put into the hat, with prices running from $150 to $1,400 for the fanciest Navajo-beaded brim. While traditionalists are drawn toward the venerable Stetson, a rodeo rider won't wear anything but the more rugged Resistol hat; both come from Hat Brands Inc. (214-494-0511). Working cowboys who want top quality and custom fit buy from O'Farrell of Durango (303-259-5900), where you can crown yourself with anything from a Brazen Hussy to a Wyatt Earp. Come summertime, when it's too steamy for beaver felt, the true buckaroo switches to paja toquilla straw, aka a panama. For the best fit and finest-grade straw, contact Montecristi Custom Hat Works (505-983-9598).

They come in everything from black alligator to Norwegian ox to full-quill ostrich, though unglamorous kid leather is still the norm. Rocketbuster (915-541-1300) offers a collection of fiesta-colored mudkickers, while Olathe (913-764-5110) crafts a dependable yet jazzy boot that's popular with working cowboys. The new ATS boot from Ariat (800-899-8141) combines running shoe technology with cowboy style for a biomechanically sound swagger. Ronald Reagan wears alligator-skin boots from Lucchese (800-637-6888), while Troy Aikman is shod by Justin (817-332-4385), whose boots are suited equally for two-stepping and manure-pitching. Expect to pay between $150 and $5,000, depending on the dazzle factor.

Belt Buckles
While rounded trophy buckles were in vogue not too long ago, today they're considered stylish only when earned properly, which means inside the rodeo ring. Showier cowboys are now opting for less clunky four-piece ranger sets, chemically weathered for an antique look. Comstock Heritage (702-246-3835), the oldest western silversmith in the country, makes some of the most ornate buckles around. The more cosmopolitan herdsperson might try Douglas Magnus-Heartline (505-983-6777). A good buckle can put you out anywhere from $175 to $7,200, though your belt can be a low investment: Any sturdy leather or hitched horsehair strap will do.

Saddles and Chaps
The rage on the range is the Ortho-flex saddle (417-667-7834), built with a spring-panel suspension system that protects horse from rider and rider from horse. Colorado Saddlery (303-572-8350) and Circle Y Brand Saddles (512-293-3501) also offer solid, well-crafted seating. If you can pay more and wait longer, you're likely to get a more comfortable ride from a custom-made saddle--such as a McClellan by Dry Fork Saddles (801-789-3900). A good saddle runs from $550 for a manufactured model to up to $8,000 for a custom piece. For chaps--in ranchspeak, "shaps" or simply "leggins'"--don't buy off the rack. Instead, see a reputable leather worker for a custom fit. Chaps run from $60 to around $500.

Working cowpokes stick to character-less denim and chambray shirts built wide in the shoulders and long in the arms. Try Brushpopper shirts from Wrangler (910-332-3564) or the Western Classic line from Schaefer Outfitters (800-426-2074) for the dull but durable real thing. C. C. Filson (800-624-0201) makes the best in weather-resistant cowboy outerwear, from wool Cruiser coats to the classic oilskin duster. Shirts go for around $28, while a full duster costs $281. Don't get on a horse without deerskin roper gloves from Geier (360-736-5883), made with reinforced palms for keeping a tight hold on your reins ($30). For neckwear, cowboys wear everyday bandannas to work, though when stepping out they might tie on something silk. Try Cattle Kate (800-332-5283) for silk scarves ($24).

Ropes, Tack, and Hardware
From calf strings to hoof nippers, cowboys choose their gear with care. King's Saddlery (800-443-8919) maintains a huge inventory of leatherware, tools, and spurs, not to mention straight-tied nylon and polypropylene ropes. Favored among rodeo riders are the Diamond-Back and Venom team ropes available from Rattler Ropes (800-848-7708). Expect to pay roughly $22 for a 30-footer.

For the Open Range
The Colorado Tent Company (800-354-8368) is a good place to browse if you want to camp like a cowhand. Here you can find a classic canvas range tent, with wooden poles and stakes, for $190. Gritty coffee at sunrise tastes best when brewed in a blue enamel pot set over the campfire ($11). For late-night antics under the stars, add a hickory-handled Throwing Tomahawk ($49.50).

For Back at the Ranch
Working ranchers tend toward the kind of authentically rustic appointments you can't find in stores--hand-hewn furniture, cowhide rugs, tarnished pieces of tack. But for upscale, solidly crafted western decor, try Robert Redford's Sundance catalog (800-422-2770), which includes everything from wrought-iron "hacienda" hat racks ($139) to acid-washed Navajo-style tissue holders ($89). If your tastes run toward moose-antler club chairs or Holstein-upholstered entertainment centers, consider the furniture of Thomas C. Molesworth. It's available from Sweetwater Ranch (800-357-2639) at prices starting around $2,000.

Where to Shop
Alcala's Western Wear, 1733 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60622; 312-226-0152. Offering 10,000 pairs of boots, 5,000 hats, an extensive tack department, and a set of size-26 boots that belonged to Andre the Giant, Alcala's is a one-stop cowboy shop.

Miller Stockman, 8500 North Zuni, Denver, CO 80221; 800-688-9888. A kind of Sears Roebuck for cowboys, this franchise offers a full gamut of reasonably priced wrangling gear through a large catalog and 36 retail stores across the West.

Rancho, 554 Canyon Road, Santa Fe, NM 87501; 505-986-1888. This small shop carries strictly authentic western items and apparel for the working cowboy and rancher. "You won't find frills, beads, or spangles here," says owner Chuck Cooper.

Wild Bill's Western Store, 603 Munger St., Dallas, TX 75202; 214-954-1050. Deep in the heart of the city's touristy West End, a well-rounded western apparel store specializing in high-end custom boots and hand-tooled belts, but with plenty of humble Justins on the shelves.

Sara Corbett writes frequently for Outside.

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