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—Western shirts are like Western Movies—-
Western movies date back to the beginning of film’s history. Since 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery” audiences have been treated to a stream of Western entertainment, more concentrated during certain periods of the 20th century than others, and film scholars have analyzed why the Western’s popularity waxes and wanes at different historical moments, and how the films communicate ideas about politics, national identity, and racial or environmental concerns of a given period.
It’s a genre full of distinctive tropes; the saloon, the stagecoach, the dusty tumbleweed strewn street, corrals, and country churches. In both A and B-movie versions these serve as a convenient visual shorthand that screams “Western.” But there is still a lot of diversity in Western films in terms of themes, story structure, cinematography, and characters. What makes it interesting are the different interpretations and revisions of the genre, variations on a theme.
Western shirts are a lot like Western movies. They have a long history and the structure has stayed more or less the same- a narrow fitting, long tailed shirt with a yoke over the back and shoulders, decorative embroidery or pockets, closing with buttons or snaps down the front and at the cuffs. Pretty simple, but like the movies it’s the little differences, the re-interpretations of the old standards, that makes the shirts exciting.
Tom Mix was a seriously stylish man. Mix’s Westerns, like so many films from the 20s, did not shy away from artifice in storyline or aesthetics. Towering white hats, fitted pants, often tucked into the boots to show off the leather work, and coordinated ornate western shirts were Mix’s trademark. Cutting a dashing figure was more important than looking like a working cowboy, and the clothes were part of the entertainment; clearly defining our hero. Mix’s Western ensembles were custom made, western shirting was not available “off the rack” yet, but his striking and inventive looks were instrumental in popularizing the look.
Western movies peaked in popularity in the mid twenties and declined in the 30s. The Hollywood studios, which were by now consolidated into big businesses were steadily making B-Westerns, but Gangsters were the stars of feature films. But by the end of the decade there were groundbreaking Westerns like Stagecoach, and there was Technicolor. Although Western movies weren’t made in color yet, Western shirts that were commercially available thanks to catalogs like Miller Stockman, were taking some bold Technicolor turns of their own. This page from the Miller Stockman catalog of 1936 shows what I mean- two tone satins and “gay flowered designs” brocaded rayon and checked silk, these shirts are not for the modest cowboy.
My favorite is this amazing leopard print short-pile velvet number, also from 1936.
Movie making was becoming more professionalized, and by the end of the 30s we have actors getting closer to believable, working cowboy looks but there was still some very expressive stuff going on, and the screen styles were within reach of more people.
During the USA’s engagement in the Second World War the volume of Western movies’ patriotic tone was cranked up just a little louder. The cold war years saw Americans getting more affluent while dressing more casually overall, which often meant incorporating Western inspired looks. Hollywood made some of their most compelling Western movies: High Noon, Rio Grande, Shane, and The Gunfighter. Gary Cooper in High Noon and Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter both carry a sense of world-weariness and wear dignified, rumpled clothes that are a little more somber than the trim denims and rugged work clothes seen in adventure tales like Rio Grande. The movies were becoming a lot more complex and the options for Western shirts also get more varied and contrived.
There were plain, dress-shirt styles, cotton solids and plaids, the kind John Wayne would have paired with his Levis,’ and there were also bright gabardines with floral embroidery so you could dress like a country star
There were also some more finely tailored items for the girls
1960s & 1970s
Not really a moment known for epic Western film but the late sixties and 70s did bring a revisionist take on some traditional themes. Paul Newman’s modern cowboy in Hud drove around in a Cadillac while Pekinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) took the glamour out of violence with its crude and graphic scenes. In the same year John Voight played a hustler in embroidered shirts and fringed buckskins wearing in Midnight Cowboy. Heroes and villains are harder to tell apart and meanings start getting slippery….just like the polyester shirts.
Join us on Friday and Saturday, October 25 & 26th for this fall’s Manhattan vintage clothing show.
We’ll be bringing lots of fresh men’s and women’s pieces
See you soon!
for more details: http://manhattanvintage.com/
I am so impressed by the current focus gallery exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center.
An American Style combines archival sources including photographs, textiles, clippings, and garments to document the collaboration between the American Museum of Natural History and the fashion industry in the early 20th century.The museum allowed designers to explore their extensive collections of ethnographic material in the hope that they would find inspiration and forge a distinctive American style inspired by the visual and material culture from this continent.
Walter Mitschke for H. R. Mallinson & Co. Drawing for “Zuni Tribe,” ca. 1927. Pencil and gouache on paper. Museum of Fine Arts Boston,
“Drawing upon the imperialistic notion that Euro-American culture could lay special claim to indigenous artifacts from the Americas, AMNH anthropology curators sought to innovate a distinctly “American” design idiom based on the museum’s vast collections of Native American, Mesoamerican, Andean, and South American objects. Paralleling the globalization of national consciousness as the United States entered the war in 1917, the AMNH began to embrace a wider array of non-Western material from a more global selection of cultures”
Textile designs, fabric yardage and some amazing examples of original specimens ranging from Nivkhi fish-skin jackets to garments from the Philippines and Javanese textiles are on view.
I don’t want to give away too much, you really should go see it for yourself!
Model in Ainu bark fiber robe, ca. 1916. Image 2A18806, American Museum of Natural History Library
look here for more details: http://www.bgc.bard.edu/gallery/gallery-at-bgc/upcoming-exhibitions/an-american-style.html
- The Bard Graduate Center Gallery is Located at 18 West 86th Street-