Dress code for the Western guy

Wranglers, snap shirts, and cowboy hats — horse optional.

  • Rob Pudim


First of all, I am not an expert in how Western women should dress, although after wandering around Denver's annual Great Western Stock Show this winter, the only rule I could see was that whatever a woman wears is supposed to be tight.

Second, given that 99.9 percent of the men in the West do not qualify as cowboys, a group rapidly disappearing from the West, we should probably not wear cowboy clothes any more. John Wayne movies notwithstanding, real cowboys decades ago probably sported more dirt and dust than anything we'd care to emulate.

Despite this, I realize that some guys still want to dress in what they think of as Western style, and there do seem to be some rules about how to do it right. The first tip is to wear a shirt that has pearl snaps instead of buttons. The shirt can be plain, plaid, striped or even embroidered -- the more garish the better. They say the snaps prevent you from being pulled off your non-existent horse if the shirt gets caught on a branch. The bright colors are so somebody sees you dangling from the mesquite.

The second rule is you have to wear Wranglers, because the seams that might chafe you on a horse are on the outside of your leg. The legs must also be way too long and bunch up on your boots so that when you get on your imaginary saddle, your pants won't ride up above your boot tops.

This leads naturally to the third rule, which decrees that your boots must cost an arm and a leg because they are made from ostrich, eel, elephant or snakeskin.  Fourth, you have to have a big belt and a giant buckle announcing that you won first place in an obscure local rodeo, bullthrowing or maybe hornswoggling. Strangely, cowboy hats are now optional. However, if you do wear one, it has to be expensive and black. You have to wear it all the time, and should you, God forbid, take it off, remember to put it down, rim up.

As for accoutrements, bolo ties seem to be optional, and actual horses are unnecessary. Few Western males have one because horses are mostly owned by teenage girls, and their upkeep is the responsibility of their impoverished, but doting, parents. It is cheaper to maintain a Rolls-Royce than a horse. All of the above is your basic Western look. Over time, however, variations have emerged:

IVY LEAGUE WEST:  If you are from an Eastern college and do not want to be confused with a local, choose a button-down shirt, tweed jacket, new jeans with a frighteningly pronounced crease and cowboy boots. Oh, and carry a book.

SANTA FE ARTISTIC:  You wear a jacket or vest with a geometric pattern and silver buttons. Ideally the jacket or vest should be made from an Indian blanket or Chimayo rug but the Pendleton blanket alternative is more common and cheaper. A ponytail in any color including gray and a watchband sporting chunks of turquoise are nice additions.

TEXAS GOOD OL' BOY: Put on a bolo tie, big white hat and large belt buckle to mesh with a substantial beer belly. Your Wranglers, attached somewhere under your gut, should look as though they're held in place by magic. Wear your belly proudly: You won it by making a longtime commitment to beer and barbecue.

SATURDAY NIGHT BUCKEROO: Just dress like the early cinema cowboys Roy Rogers or Gene Autry and don't pack a gun. You should look all hat, no cattle, as they say.

REAL COWBOY: Maybe some men on the professional rodeo circuit are cowboys, but most of the real ones are drifter ranch hands barely paid more than the minimum wage. Most dude ranch hands are Easterners or guys from the Midwest who grow mustaches and put on twangy accents to pick up girls. Guys who really grew up on a working ranch don't want to have anything to do with horses and cows: They like ATVs or motorcycles. I read somewhere that the first cowboys were Native Americans forced by the Spanish to take care of their herds. Others were blacks riding herd for a white master. Many were poor uneducated white kids. The real cowboy outfit these days, is probably a gimme baseball cap, J.C.Penney or Wal-Mart shirts, worn jeans and lace-up trappers or ropers.

Western duds are really all about practicality: If a horse pulls up lame or you have to walk a long ways, high-heeled, pointy-toed boots are not what you want on your feet. Nor do you want to find yourself walking in horse hockey with those pricey Tony Lamas.

Rob Pudim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He observes the West and writes about it from Boulder, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Rob Pudim's Article, "Dress Code for the Western Guy"
Gary S. Bradak
Gary S. Bradak
Jun 04, 2010 09:55 AM
Just what was "High Country News" thinking? If this "Writers on the Range" article is an example of a "service" of High Country News, I suppose putting a burr under someone's saddle would also be a service. This article, from beginning to end, was nothing but an unfunny, gratuitous insult to any Westerner who has enough regional pride, enough sense of his own patrimony, enough sense of place and history, to try to set himself apart from the overwhelming crush of modern humanity that neither knows nor cares where it lives (or is it just enough "ignorance" to want to dress as he feels comfortable?). This article reminded me of nothing so much as the old men of my father's generation (I am 65) making fun of "drugstore cowboys" in a lame attempt at being "cool" (or whatever they would have called it). I'm a "green" guy. I deplore the "Second Rape of the West" (as Ed Abbey characterized it) probably more than most. I'm emphatically not a redneck. When "American Cowboy" put George Bush on its cover, I was almost as exercised as I am today. But I wear my Wranglers stacked, and I have a handlebar and an imperial. I've never owned a cow, or pretended to. It's a fashion statement, but one that is central to my identity as a (proud) Westerner. As much as Mr. Pudim might like, we do not live in New England. In my lifetime, I have seen this sort of pride diminish from embarrassment over not having a cowboy hat at least while the rodeo is on, to the sad state it has reached today. And I most emphatically do not appreciate some Starbucks-swilling jerk of Rob Pudim's ilk making what he lamely perceives to be fun of my clothing, my culture, and my ancestry. Lord help the immigrants from south of the border when he notices how they dress. Luckily for the Navajos, they have nearly abandoned their distinctive costume. I can just imagine what a subject they would have been for Pudim's "humor" 50 years ago. This insult to Westerners demands a retraction and an apology.
Jun 04, 2010 01:26 PM
Easy Gary! Down boy!
 It sounds like your stacked Wranglers might be on a little tight.
rob pudim's article
Lonesome Cowboy
Lonesome Cowboy
Sep 15, 2010 10:00 AM
First of all, thanks to Mr. Bradak for his responce. I wonder what Mr. Pudim would do with George Strait? It's a scary thought. Please note that many of the old west personalities came from the east and settled in the west. I guess we could talk about history all day long if you want, but my idea of a cowboy is in the way a man believes in humanity and the way he carries himself. Yes we all have our different ways of expressing ourselves but the cowboy image can be seen on a street in Florida or the mountains of Montana. You'll recognize him anywhere. He has that look that lets you know he knows what it's all about. You'll spot him in the crowd if you look hard enough. He's a vanishing breed but he's still out there. The ladies know what I mean. There's a few that possess one and many more desiring one. He what America's all about; freedom, loyalty, and honor. He's someone you want to talk to, someone you want to be near. Whether he rides a horse or drives an ole beat up truck, you won't mistake him. My hat's off to all of you. "Long live cowboys".
Dress Code West
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon
Jun 08, 2010 02:12 PM
Duuuude, you left out Southern Arizona. How could you? The only time I see anything 'western' on the streets of this overgrown cowtown is during Tucson's rodeo, and the wearers thereof are from out of town. Eliminating foreign fashion, I must presume that the backwards b-ball cap, baggy shorts, t-shirt and fill-in-the-brand name-of-choice sneakers are now 'western wear', chicly modeled by guys in pickups blaring CW music.

That failing inspection, khaki shorts, Hawaiian shirts, Birks and a canvas hat must suffice. Why? Because long-sleeved pearl-snap shirts, jeans, wool felt hats and cowboy boots are a cause for heat stroke at 105 degees.

to Deb in Baja Arizona
Beth F.
Beth F.
Jun 10, 2010 12:55 AM
I had to laugh at your comment, I live in Tucson and the only way I'm getting to debut my new boots is on my upcoming trip to Flagstaff. I totally know what you're saying.
Western Guy Dress Code(s)
Jo A
Jo A
Jun 08, 2010 02:35 PM
'loved the article.

Thank you from Seattle! :)
Dress code of the West...
Jun 08, 2010 03:44 PM
I have to disagree with Mr.Pudim on a couple of points.
1: Owning a horse/horses is MORE expensive than a Rolls Royce. Having raised a single Daughter who was twice our County Sheriff Possee Queen and one of those years was Sheriff's possee Queen and 4-H Rodeo Queen! And a couple of years we had to have more than one horse for different events. Of course, Dad had to have a horse to work with said Daughter.
2: Cowboy boots are not uncomfortable to walk in, do not have to be expensive to be practicable. I wear boots all the time where ever! I own an expensive pair of Ostrich boots, but just for special occations.
3: "cowboy clothes" can be worn mostly anywhere and anytime. As a matter of fact my Wife often complains because I "always wear the same clothes!"
There a lot of watabees but Cowboy clothes are very good for those of us who wear them regularly...
snap shirts & other practicalities
Jun 08, 2010 05:45 PM
Ah, more sartorial critque and presumption from Boulder! Thank goodness!

Snap shirts -- which I don't always wear -- are very practical for guys who have lost dexterity due to arthritis or missing digits. I sometimes stuff my gloves or a map into my shirt when ahorseback, and the snaps make that a lot easier too.

Never heard the part about the branches, but I know from experience that snaps will pop open if you hang up on the saddle horn when you have to climb down in a hurry -- such as when a horse might be about to fall over in rough country. Regular buttons will eventually tear lose but if you need to get down in a hurry, snaps are safer.

I did get a branch under my stampede string (the cord that holds your hat on) one time gathering cattle out of some timber. If you like your hat and your neck, make sure your string can break away if there's a chance of this happening.

I know a lot of accomplished horsemen who save their riding boots for just that; if they're in town or working off the ATV, they wear hiking boots or other shoes. Why wear out those good boots?

I am guessing that Mr. Pudim probably doesn't go around asking Wrangler wearers whether they really have horses or not. You might ask around a little . . .

. . . of course, think how funny your Boulder get-ups look to some of us in the rural West, and ask yourself if it's polite or even safe to go around making sport of people's appearances . . .
You forgot the Navajo Cowboy
R White
R White
Jun 09, 2010 08:15 AM
Here on the reservation, the horse is waaay less expensive than a Rolls Royce. They are scrawny and not cared for and when they go to the auction they only cost $15, but back to the cowboy. We have strawhat wearing cowboys that emulate rodeo cowboys but when they do manage to enter in a rodeo they just jump off their bucking bulls. Then their is the councilman cowboy, their only objective is to take all the people's money and spend it on themselves. Their cowboy code is to wear out the land and overgraze it, then give whatever soil is left to Colorado and New Mexico. I am sure they confused about this, grateful and not.
dress code
Jim Spehar
Jim Spehar
Jun 14, 2010 04:58 PM
Back in the '70s, when we moved up to Evergreen from Denver, we passed up a good business idea. We were going to open up "Mountain Cool" stores along the two entrances to town at Bergen Park and Kittredge. We'd stock a variety of plaid shirts, a choice of bib overalls or Levis, gimme caps or cowboy hats, some cowboy boots and hiking boots and, for the would-be contractors, mixed breed dogs, hammers and saws, bandanas (for the dogs) and a selection of beat up pickups and/or Landcruisers.
Could've made a fortune. In fairness, we owned most of the above in the six or seven years we lived up there.
I've changed
Bill Pudim
Bill Pudim
Jun 14, 2010 06:07 PM
I was one of those Stetson wearing, Tony Lama shod,lookin' like a cowboy residents when I lived in Sheridan ,Wy. Now I'm a Toque wearing, Sorel shod,clad in plaid flannel wearin expat in Cochrane, Ontario. The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh?
Jared Barber
Jared Barber
Sep 23, 2011 04:02 PM
I was raised in Southern Louisiana and we owned horses the majority of my life, and I don't know about anyone else here, but cowboys aren't necessarily running a herd across the country. I thought we were cowboys because of our morals, the fact that we worked with cattle, and because of our lifestyle. Maybe we weren't cowboys but I would say the cowboy is far from gone, our english may have a touch of french in it, but we are as American as they come, and I'd be just as dissapointed if you said cajuns were gone too.
Marcel Kuemmet
Marcel Kuemmet
Oct 18, 2016 06:00 PM
Yep, I be one of them (or used to be) wandering hands paid less then a poverty wage. If you do it for the money, you ain't gonna make it. The time one spends in the Saddle, on a really ... really good horse, near the Mesa, or on Elk Mountain, is all the pay a real Cowboy needs.
I wear Durango Rebel Boots. Tennis shoes disguised as roper boots.
I prefer Levi 517's ... since the 70's. I seem to end up with Wranglers most of the time though.
Wrangler shirts are standard core. There are many good snap western shirt makers.
Carhartt standard coat for work.
Light leather gloves (nylon don't last a day in the saddle around here).
Schaefers Ranch coat with felt under coat for those casual cold nights in the Valley.
Gerber knife .. carry at all times.
Marlin Guide Gun 45-70 ... if needed
Ruger 1911 Commander Pistol .45 ... if I feel I may need.
Signal Mirror, carry at all times (if you go into the Mountains, especially this time of year, on foot, or on Horseback, and you don't have one of these, you are a fool).
Leather ... Leather .. tack and gear, these Mountains eat nylon for breakfast.
Map and Compass ... the GPS will fail when it's most needed, guaranteed!
Whiskey. If I feel I may need.