Why the Wild, Wild West?
If the cowboy is a fundamental emblem of America, what does the current obsession with and reimagining of this symbol mean?
Cowboys rode back into style in early 2018. Since Raf Simons’ dark ode to the Wild West in Calvin Klein’s Fall 2017 show, the cowboy-inspired, Western trend has taken over the fashion industry. From prominent influencers donning pointed-toe cowgirl boots and wide-brimmed hats to clothing websites prominently featuring fringe jackets and double denim, the Western trend currently dominates the media. Despite what some might argue, fashion is not purely materialistic; it is also political and can influence and offer insight into contemporary values and mindsets. So, what does it reveal about the state of the U.S.A. that New Yorkers are wearing fringe jackets and cowboy hats in 2019?
First, a brief history of the cowboy: the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the 1500s, bringing with them a culture of domesticating animals. The new ranch system gave rise to the Vaquero, or cattle herder, to tend to and herd cows on horseback. In the 1700s, this practice spread into Texas and played a crucial role in Western expansion. During this period, the uniform was a natural response to the cowboy’s rigorous tasks and the harsh climate. However, beginning in the 1800s, Vaqueros held competitions amongst themselves to see who was the best of the best. This led to the rise of rodeo. With industrialization lowering the demand for cattle herders, rodeo expanded into flamboyant performances which preserved and sensationalized Western culture. Throughout the nineteenth century, extravagant horseback parades and grandiose plays depicting the idealized West took place throughout America and Europe. Consequently, the idea of the stylish (think bedazzled belts and embroidery-covered shirts), alluring cowboy arose. And this development marked the beginning of the ongoing romanticization and glamorization of Western culture.
The lifestyle of the cowboy has evolved since the 1800s. “Modern cowboys” are Americans who work on ranches, or tend to land in the Midwest and Texas. According to the Pew Research Center and the Census Reporter, many of today’s cowboys are conservative or moderate, white, working-class residents of rural communities. Interestingly, this demographic forms a large section of President Trump’s supporters. During the 2016 campaign, this group of voters received unprecedented attention due to their growing political role and power. They were consequently swept into political conversations and given substantial media attention. Obviously, not all of these communities are filled with cowboys riding around in boots and chaps. But, the rise of the Western trend might reflect the increased attention to the previously “neglected” Americans to whom Trump’s campaign catered: the foundational underbelly of America that many coastal liberals were naively ignoring. Or, maybe Trump’s demand to “Make America Great Again” forced us to look back at our past. And, in doing so, we revisited the stereotypical cowboy iconography. In other words, the trend could stem from Americans’ nostalgia for a pre-industrialized society and their desire to revert to the romanticized construct of a “simpler time.” Perhaps day-dreaming of such an era reacquainted us with stereotypical Western iconography.
Women’s newfound political power is another key player in the rise of the cowgirl aesthetic. The #MeToo movement and the unprecedented number of women elected into Congress in the midterm elections inspired some to call 2018 the Year of the Woman. And it actually makes sense that many are turning to the cowgirl aesthetic to express this newfound voice, the unparalleled political representation, and the higher standards of justice in handling sexual assault. To me, the cowgirl represents freedom and independence. In media, cowgirls are often fierce, self-sufficient, badasses who do what they want, when they want and embrace their autonomy. Women today are adopting this persona through their clothing; we promote the outgoing and independent cowgirl-confidence by dawning bedazzled belts. And this is not the first or only trend female empowerment has influenced. Think back to the extravagant 60s when fashion conveyed rebellion and individuality. The groundbreaking clothing paralleled and reflected the revolutionary, liberating decade. In the past year, there has been a rise in clothing traditionally associated with work uniforms and power-dressing— think blazers, suits and checkered patterns. These are all pieces that exude confidence of women in the workplace. Just as they have been throughout history, women today are adopting clothing styles to express contemporary social and political empowerment.
Women are not alone in utilizing clothing to express themselves: artists of color are using the cowboy trend to challenge and expand upon what it means to be “American.” The power and sense of entitlement this identity contains has traditionally been reserved for white Americans. In media, the “American Cowboy” is a hyper-masculine, rugged, white man in brown, pointed boots and a matching hat and jacket paving the frontier. The Western cowboy is a quintessential symbol of America, and, as usual, black people have been been inaccurately excluded from the picture. The stories of black cowboys and cowgirls have been erased by the media and an educational system dedicated to whitewashing history. However, black artists have been re-imagining this myth by using the Western trend in their work.
Think of Cardi B in her pink and blue, fringe-covered cowgirl chaps and matching bejeweled hat. Think of Solange’s recent cowgirl aesthetic in her album “When I Get Home.” Think of Mitski’s “Be the Cowboy.” Think back to Beyonce and Destiny's Child in the early 2000s wearing head-to-toe denim or matching blue fringe sets. These women challenge the cowboy stereotype and rewrite the myth that all cowboys are white men.
Recently, Lil Nas X has been redefining the white cowboy narrative through his Rap-meets-Country song “Old Town Road.” When it first came out, both everyday Americans and those in the music industry were reluctant to label this song as Country. This refusal to recognize Nas’s place in the genre was undeniably tied to his skin color. Most Americans do not picture a Country artist as a young, black man from Atlanta, so many felt more comfortable restricting his song to the Rap/Hip-Hop category. Billboard removed the song from its Top Country 100 list because it was not country “enough.” That is, until Billy Ray Cyrus came into the picture. Despite the relatively minimal changes in a new version of “Old Town Road” featuring Cyrus, Americans were suddenly way more willing to call it a Country song and it was placed on Billboard's Country Airplay chart. Cyrus is a well-known singer and his contribution created an inevitable link between “Old Town Road” and Country music. But he is also a white, masculine man who fits the stereotypical cowboy mold. This unease with the idea of a black cowboy again illuminates that the media has erased black narratives from America’s cultural history. And, regardless of whether the change in label was racially motivated, it is clear that Lil Nas X is reimagining who can be a cowboy in America.
In 2018, Dallas-native Bri Malandro coined the term the “Yee-Haw Agenda” to capture this trend of black artists reacting to the cowboy narrative. By updating the stereotype of the cowboy to be more diverse, people of color reclaim the term “American” and expand who is allowed under this umbrella. This reimagining of who is an American feels very fitting at a time when the current President has a violently racist vision of what America should be and who is welcome in it. The “Yee-Haw Agenda” works against this. Through this Western aesthetic, people of color are re-imagining the notion of who is an “American”.
This trend does not just pertain to clothing; the Wild, Wild West has blown up in internet culture too. Think of all of the “yeehaw” memes in the past few months: yee, and I cannot stress this enough, haw. The cowboy hat emoji has topped my frequently used for the past six months. There is HBO’s influential “Westworld” and the young yodeler Mason Ramsey. Coachella was packed with over-the-top cowboy hats, boots, and chaps (consequently nicknamed CHAPCHELLA). While the cowboy is masculine and hard-working, it is also flexible and “meme-able”, and has therefore permeated into every corner of the internet. All of these media forms are impacting each other and fueling the country’s growing obsession with the Western aesthetic.
You probably want to know how to jump on this bandwagon. It is hard to know when an outfit crosses the line between the trendy aesthetic and something that looks straight out of a Halloween catalogue. There is also always the question of cultural appropriation and of ignorantly taking a valued aspect from a community for aesthetic purposes. This could potentially be a valid issue here as I assume that many of the New Yorkers strutting around in pointy boots have no connection whatsoever to real cowboy culture. However, while people are wearing fringe jackets, it is not as though everyone is suddenly in chaps and full blown suede suits (at least not yet). The Western aesthetic has been reimagined to be more polished, elevated, and refined. As British Vogue described it in a recent article, the trend is “less rodeo cowboy, more Rodeo Drive.” To do this, it is easiest to pair one statement Western piece with more traditional garments. I welcome you to the new frontier.