A cowboy shirt topped the list for awhile of all the things I wanted as a kid. Of course the childhood passion I had for a cowboy shirt was closely followed by a huge desire for cowboy boots (with a jangling pair of spurs of course!) and a great six-gun cap gun and holster set.
A good cowboy shirt and comfortable boots would still rank highly on my list of gifts for any gift-receiving occasion, although I’ll admit I’m not that keen anymore on the cap gun and holster set. (A number of years ago when my teenage son discovered I was working on a Western novel, he gave me a toy six-gun and a plastic sheriff’s star Comme des Garcons Shirt . I kept them just for the fun of it; and, no, the novel never got finished.)
Today’s cowboy shirt comes in a huge variety of styles and colors, with custom shoulder yoke stitching, everything from metal to bone to plastic buttons and snaps, and emblems of all sorts appliqued on the front and back. What I, personally, prefer in a good cowboy shirt are the double front pockets. I’ve always had a couple of things, yes, including pens or pencils, that I like to have handy in a shirt pocket and I’ve never understood why so much casual shirt fashion for men has eliminated all pockets??
There’s little information that I’ve found about the evolution of men’s shirts in the Old West into these fancy, quite beautiful cowboy shirts of present-day Western fashion. I’m going to guess that the fancy buttons and snaps on today’s cowboy shirt came about as non-Westerners worked on adding colors and bright, shiny objects to everyday work shirts, chiefly as a result of “Wild West” shows and, ultimately, rodeos and other such cowboy festivities. But that’s really just a guess.
One of my favorite sources for information about clothes and clothing “accessories” from the Civil War onward in the period of America’s Old West is The Look of the Old West by William Foster-Harris. He makes an interesting point about men’s shirts, specifically men’s shirts as part of the uniforms issued by both sides to soldiers during the Civil War. Foster-Harris says soldiers were issued a gray flannel shirt as part of their uniform and were left pretty much on their own to scrounge up any other shirts. Although many found calico or gingham shirts for warmer weather wear, many simply wore no shirts at all under their heavy woolen uniform jackets during hot weather.
Shirts of that period, Foster-Harris says, were a far cry from any of today’s cowboy shirts. They all pulled on over the head, rather than buttoning down the front. And a shirt collar, he says, “if any, was an atrocity, merely a foldover of the material at the neckband.”
So cowboy shirts have come a long way from Old West times, becoming a serious style of casual wear and fashionable dress wear throughout much of the country, not just the Western U.S. From fundamental cloth protection worn near the body under outer wear for warmth to fashion statements. What ranch hand in the 1800s would have expected to find a cowboy shirt like that? And what kid growing up on the Plains in the 1950s would have coveted such clothing, even into adulthood? (I won’t answer that!)