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.