\"I can see by your outfit that you are a cowboy\"\* The Spray Rodeo always marks the beginning of summer around here. On May 23-25th I attended the 67th annual Spray Rodeo and the arena and stands were filled with people wearing cowboy hats, western belts, blue jeans and cowboy boots. It got me to thinking \"Why does what are essentially work clothes hold such an enduring fascination?\"
This is logging country as well as cattle country and loggers are hearty outdoors types too. Like cowboys, they do tough, demanding and dangerous work under the open skies, but lace-up boots and hard hats have never had the same status as a fashion statement. Flannel shirts were a fashion item for a select group for a couple of years, blue jeans have been a world-wide fashion standard for a couple of generations.
Perhaps some jobs tend to attract more flamboyant characters than others, people who demand that even work clothes show style. I have always thought that welders tend to be flashier than carpenters for instance. On the other hand, I once knew a logger who drove a pink pickup truck with purple polka dots named \"Spot\" so that can't be the whole explanation. Maybe cowboy clothes just inherently have more panache
I think the movies have a lot to do with it. We all know people who try to walk like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. Dressing up like a cowboy is another way of indulging the fantasy of being the cool-eyed drifter who rides into the troubled little town to set things right.
But, make no mistake about it, fashion is just as important as function when it comes to cowboy outfits. Cowboy style has changed since I saw my first rodeos in the 1960s. Hats, boots shirts, everything except the basic blue jeans have changed noticeably since I was a kid.
Some of this reflects the evolution of the cowboy's job. We still use horses, but not nearly as much as we used to. If you spend all day in the saddle, a boot that really grips the stirrup is good, if you are walking or driving a vehicle, a high boot heel is awkward so boot heels have gotten a lot lower. Spurs are smaller and worn lower than they used to be. Eastern Oregon is all I know so they could still be wearing three inch heels and inch long rowels in El Paso.
Belts have gotten much more elaborate. Back in the day, tooled leather was about as fancy as it got. Really big buckles are still important but only if you win it in a competition. Otherwise it just looks silly and makes it very hard to bend over.
Hat styles come and go but, at least around here, they seem less substantial that the ones I remember. It's been a long time since I've seen a powder-blue sombrero. Again, part of it is because the work is different. People don't spend as much time exposed to the elements and these days a baseball cap is typical ranch wear. For one thing it's hard to wear a cowboy hat in a car seat with headrests.
But it just wouldn't be rodeo without the Rodeo Queen with a big hat and chaps and a sparkly outfit racing by on a big horse wearing elaborate tack. In any era, the Rodeo Queen is the height of cowboy style.
Cowboy outfits may have started out as work clothes for ranch hands but, as with everything else about the Rodeo, they have evolved far beyond their utilitarian beginnings.
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Photo credit:C. Weatherford