by Philip J Reed on behalf of STETSON
Cowboy culture is still at the heart of the American spirit.
You can hear it in common words and phrases. If you've ever called someone a deadbeat, played a hand of poker against a card sharp or heard a computer hacker referred to as a black hat, you're hearing echoes of the Old West in modern language.
Cowboy style has become a part of our way of life, too. While real cowboys weren't trying to “cut a swell”, as they might have called dressing up for an occasion, the cowboys on the silver screen during Hollywood's golden years of great westerns had style enough for everyone.
The style of the Old West went deeper than just wearing the right hat or picking out a fancy belt buckle.
Read on and find out why John Wayne, Charlton Heston and Clint Eastwood always looked like the real deal in the movies even when they were just playing make-believe.
Part of it was costuming, but part of it was attitude.
Aside from his trusty horse, nothing proclaims a cowboy like his hat. Cowboy hats aren't just from the movies; real cowboys wore them on the open plain.
When a cowboy was out on the range, the high crown of his hat kept his head cool while the wide brim chased the sun from his face.
A lot of fashions may change, but the classic silhouette of a cowboy hat looks just about the same now as it did more than a century ago. For movie cowboys, hats were also a great way to say something about the men wearing them.
Watch Gary Cooper in "High Noon," and you'll see how he makes that hat talk even when he doesn't say a word. His hat may have been black in the movie, but later, directors used hat colors as a shorthand way of telling the good guys from the bad guys.
Tom Mix's and the Lone Ranger's white hats showed they were the stars, and a white hat is still a nickname for a movie hero.
Only cowboy hats were more of a uniform for movie cowboys than their boots.
Rugged and practical, cowboy boots are meant for long rides. Their pointed toes slide into the stirrups easily, and their heels are made to hook just right to keep him in the saddle even when breaking a wild horse. Spurs kept a horse in line and added a little style.
Real cowboys wore boots, but movie cowboys usually wore them just for a few long shots and scenes of spurs flashing in the sun.
If you're a movie director, you're going to keep the cameras on John Wayne's craggy face, not his feet! If you want to borrow big-screen cowboy style, boots are part of the picture, but they get less screen time than hats.
Watch James Stewart in "The Naked Spur" for a closer look at one of a cowboy's most important accessories. Here's some advice: Go for traditional styles and trusted names, not fancy dress boots.
Jeans have been around since the 1850s, and they were always a working man's uniform. From prospectors to cowboys, jeans were part of the fabric of the Old West.
They're tough enough to take anything a cowboy can dish out and still provide protection from saddle sores.
Movie cowboys, though, didn't always wear jeans, at least not in the early westerns. Jeans looked a little too much like what any working guy wore, and that meant that movies had to change things around to make their heroes look more heroic.
This is one place that you should probably go with real western style over movie make-believe.
He may have been far out on the frontier, but the American cowboy wasn't a wild man. He tipped his hat to say hello, spit his tobacco in the spittoon and never swore in the presence of ladies.
City folks from back East might have confused plain, honest talk with coarseness, but cowboys weren't uncultured men. They didn't have a lot of formal education, but they valued the practical knowledge and common courtesy that made living in a harsh world easier.
Writers and directors probably made cowboys on the silver screen look a little smoother around the edges than real cowboys, though. Like putting the hero in a white hat, having him treat a lady well or be kind to a kid was a useful movie shorthand to set him apart from the rough-talking tobacco-spitting villain.
The Strong, Silent Type
Movie cowboys know all about the strong, silent hero.
Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood were just the later players in a long tradition of quiet men whose emotions ran deep. This image of the cowboy is where reality and Hollywood met, in fact.
When the first silent films came out in the early 1900s, cowboys who no longer had a place on the big cattle drives had to go somewhere to earn a living.
Some of them went farther west to California, picking up jobs in Wild West shows. The best of them were so good that directors put them on camera. Tom Mix, Jack Hoxie and Hoot Gibson were the real deal before they became stars in westerns.
Cowboy style goes bone-deep, and it isn't just about the clothes or the shoes or even the broad-brimmed cowboy hats. It comes from respecting honest work over fancy clothes and plain speech over Hollywood lines.