Like many costumes won by Americans for the performance of different jobs and chosen roles in society, the cowboy's clothing is distinctive. It developed according to the requirements of the profession--boots, chaps, neckerchiefs--but with a certain style of its own that is particularly "American" and more particularly "western." While certain features of cowboy clothes come from necessary function, like the heels on boots, other features are more aesthetic and symbolic than practical, like pearl snaps on shirts.
For young men in the West, becoming a buckaroo is greatly enhanced by the image of manliness, vigor, and pride the special clothing conveys. They could just as easily wear suit coats, vests, plain shirts, small felt hats, and "work shoes" like the buckaroos in the 1890s. But fashions change for traditional working people as well as for the city's upper crust. The Angora "wooly" chaps once standard in Nevada gave way to "batwings," which gave way about 30 years ago to today's short, fringed "chinks." Jeans are still worn, but a good pair of brown Sears work pants or Big Smith overalls would probably serve as well. Ranchers and cowboys who are secure and reasonably content with their way of life prefer to dress according to the standards and traditions of the community. A feeling of belonging and mutual respect is more important to people in Nevada than a feeling of being different. Clothes are yet another away of expressing one's role in society and one's acceptance or rejection of a community's traditions and habits.
Clothes that are too fancy or expensive-looking are avoided by most experienced buckaroos, even when getting cleaned up and going into town for an evening or special occasion. You can tell a newcomer or outsider by the clothes he wears, and the old hands reveal subtly the correct standards and customs to a new man in the outfit. Certain variations may be significant only to insiders. For example, a cowboy's place of origin and mode of upbringing and training in the profession can often be determined by the style of the heel of the boot, or by the manner of wearing jeans--very long or shorter, tucked inside the boot tops or left out. A cowboy from the Nevada tradition believes that wearing jeans very long outside the boot keeps dust and pests out. Another man, from Montana, perhaps, believes pant legs have to be tucked inside the boot tops for the same reason.
Hats, too, help determine origin. Shapes and styles of cowboy hats change according to a regional sense of fashion, and young men are always particular about hat shape and style. Older men care less about it, and since years ago hat brims were narrower and crowns lower, any hat like that (won by a man aged 50 and up) is called an "old man hat." Buckaroos hate being caught without their hats planted on their heads. Hats are permanent fixtures, essential equipment not to be fiddled with too much. Some old-time cowhands believe that decorating hats with ornaments of any kind spoils them, but others feel funny wearing a hat without a tail feather from a cock pheasant sticking out behind the hatband. A buckaroo usually has two hats, both expensive. One is worn almost every day, all day, indoors and out. The same hat is generally worn until it wears out, and a man riding horseback with cattle can be easily identified through the dust and haze by the outline of his head and hat. A good, expensive hat is highly prized today just as it has always been.
[From "Buckaroos in Paradise: Cowboy Life in Northern Nevada" by Howard W. Marshall and Richard E. Ahlborn, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC, 1980, page 36]
"I Ride an Old Paint"
"I Ride an Old Paint" from the recording entitled Peter La Farge Sings of the Cowboys, Folkways SFW CD FA-2533, provided courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. © 1964. Used by permission.
This is perhaps the king of the night herding ballads. A Hollihan is a left-hand-and-around horse throw. The rope is released with minimum of movement.
"I ride an old Paint, I lead an old Dan,
I’m a-goin’ to Montan' for to throw the Hollihan,,
Well, they water the coolies, they feed in the draw,
Their backs are all matted, their tails are all raw.
Won’t you ride around easy,
Ride around slow
For the fiery and snuffy are rarin’ to go …"
"Cattle Calls," from the recording, Peter La Farge Sings of the Cowboys,
Folkways SFW CD FA-2533, provided courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. © 1964. Used by permission.
"…Ye-ow cattle, ye-ow cattle
Yi-i-h cattle, cattle,
Yih yih yi yihaw yi
Cowboys and cowgirls,
And burn the barn down,
Bare back riders,
Your horses are in the chutes