top of page
  • Writer's pictureRose McMackin

How the West Was Sold

On Beyoncé, Baudrillard, and the new Western aesthetic.

 


When Texas-born superstar Beyoncé announced a pivot to country music, it was inevitable that she would launch a thousand think pieces about who — or what — gets to be country.


The image of the cowboy has long been far away from the realities of ranch life. The old idiom “all hat, no cattle” is a yeehaw way of calling someone phony for wearing a Stetson. But, as with any heavily-commodified cultural token, the origin point of the authentic cowboy is long lost. Almost two centuries of romanticization have created a hyperreal Western aesthetic, one that is not observed or genuine. Instead, an idyllic vision of an imaginary America, re-packaged for sale.


 

The earliest versions of what we today know as Western wear arrived in the southern United States with Franciscan missionaries in the early 1800s. From the tall-crowned hats to boot spurs, North American cowboys adopted and adapted the workwear of those missionary vaqueros (literally translated as “cowboys”).


By the 1870s, Texas was Texas, and the North American cowboy was a distinct aesthetic figure, cloaked in symbols we recognize today. Stetson hat, bandana, long-sleeve button-down shirt. Leather or canvas jacket. A modified version of cavalry boots, structurally reinforced with decorative stitching. Early cowboy gear featured delicate beadwork, heavily influenced by the Great Plains tribes — including the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe — which would become definitive of Western wear in later decades.


But as soon as he walked and roped, the cowboy was commodified. The U.S. Census Bureau officially recognized the end of the Frontier Era in 1890 — and the mere idea of the cowboy quickly loomed larger than the cowboy himself. By the turn of the century, his uniquely American image had traveled around the world, in dime novels, newspaper serials, and traveling shows. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show began as early as 1882, a blend of circus and rodeo that capitalized on (and contributed to) the cowboy’s mystique. The traveling show cowboys were sharp-shooting, prize-winning, costume-wearing characters, unencumbered by the banalities of ranch life. There was already a divergence between the guy working cattle and the cowboy sans cow, whose livelihood was less about ranching than it was about performing capital-C Cowboy.


No longer was the cowboy tied to Texas. Western wear catalogs offered a little bit of cowboy lifestyle to anyone anywhere. Americans from Buffalo to Los Angeles could own calfskin jackets and ten-gallon hats. German immigrant Levi Strauss’ sturdy denim jeans quickly transcended their workwear origins to become a national staple.


L-R: a 1940s Gene Autry comic book; a 1933 Nathan Turk suit; Robert Redford in a Nudie Cohn suit for 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘌𝘭𝘦𝘤𝘵𝘳𝘪𝘤 𝘏𝘰𝘳𝘴𝘦𝘮𝘢𝘯 (1979).

By 1950, the television screen had absorbed the open ranges and skies. The Wild West was a full-blown commercial industry. Will Rogers. The Lone Ranger. Gene Autry. Red Rider. More than a historical figure, the cowboy was an aspirational figure — the American knight errant. He looms large in the national imagination because he is a distilled symbol of America’s most cherished values: bravery, independence, and steadfast adherence to morals.


Celebrity Western wear designers like Bernard “Rodeo Ben” Lichtenstein, Nathan Turk, and Nudie Cohn pioneered a new and bejeweled iteration of the cowboy look. All three men immigrated from Eastern Europe and learned about the American West from early cowboy movies, frequently filmed in Europe (hence the name “spaghetti Western”). These designers crafted embellished stagewear for country music artists and silver-screen cowboys that blended the embroidery and beadwork of traditional Western wear with Old World finishing techniques and theatrical flashiness. By the late 1950s, Cohn’s bedazzled suits were status symbols for country music royalty like Porter Wagoner, Buck Owens, and Hank Williams. Gradually, the center of the cowboy universe shockwaved out of the West, away from any real place, and into the simulacrum of Hollywood film.


In other words: all rhinestones, no cattle.


Ralph Lauren FW78

It’s here that the West truly shifts from a place to an idea. “American West” and “American country” are often vague synonyms, overlapping in meaning and equally nonspecific. Attempts to qualify an identity untethered from location, heritage, or profession are futile. Instead, meaning is attached to recognizable, material objects like cowboy boots. It is, in its purest form, aesthetic. A canonization of national identity through images that could then be reanimated as advertised stuff.


Jean Baudrillard called this a uniquely American project, in hyper-contrast to European tradition. In an essay titled “Utopia Achieved” from his 1986 collection America, he writes: “[I]t is not conceptualizing reality, but realizing concepts and materializing ideas, that interests [Americans]… They build the real out of ideas. We transform the real into ideas, or into ideology.” In America, the fantasy comes first, and the material world falls in line.


Western wear reconstituted itself yet again to match a new collective fantasy of the West when Ralph Lauren reinterpreted it for high fashion. Cowboy boots hit the runway for the first time with his FW78 collection. Like the famous Western wear designers before him, Lauren grew up on cowboy movies. As a kid in the Bronx,  he was spellbound by John Wayne and Gary Cooper; as an adult, he traveled to Colorado and Texas, only to discover polyester workwear that fell short of his childhood fantasies. Thus, he set to work outfitting a “more authentic” cowboy, alchemizing Western costumes into high fashion. Bolo ties, prairie skirts, and duster coats, patinaed with a singular sense: that putting them on was to claim a little piece of the frontier for yourself.


“Ralph was the first designer to go West and find something distinctly American worth repeating on a runway,” observed journalist Phoebe Eaton in a 2006 Harper’s Bazaar retrospective on the designer. Though, of course, Lauren’s discovery was as much about the West of the movies as it was about the geographical West.


To say that the West is fashionable again now would be to suggest that it was ever out. The West is too bound up in American culture to ever fully disappear, but Western wear did dip out of the national zeitgeist in the early 2000s, as national mythology splintered in politicized and polarizing ways.


L-R: Louis Vuitton FW24, Beyoncé for W Magazine — March 2024

Today, the cowboy is undeniably back, reclaimed by the American mainstream. Fringe is everywhere. Concho belts are slung around many a waist. Google Trends show a steady upward trajectory for “cowboy boots” since January 2020. Like Beyoncé, pop star Lana del Rey announced a forthcoming country record called Lasso. Supermodel and noted horse girl Bella Hadid has recently acquired a ranch-ready look, a house in Dallas, and a rodeo-star boyfriend.


Meanwhile, Beyoncé has appeared in cowboy-coded outfits that constitute concept art. In an editorial spread for W Magazine, high fashion standbys like Gucci, Chloé, and Proenza Schouler mix with Stetson hats, glittering bolo ties, and a Champion’s Choice Silver rodeo crown. In juxtaposition, each item is defamiliarized, much like the music of Cowboy Carter. Beyoncé introduced her cowboy project as a Beyoncé album, not a country album, “[...] born out of an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcomed.” That experience drove her deep into the country archive to create an album that revels in the dimensionality of American country music. Beyoncé is reclaiming the cowboy, as only Beyoncé can.


Pharrell tackled the same themes with his Western-pilled FW24 collection for Louis Vuitton. In a post-show press meeting, he contextualized the collection as an attempt to represent a more authentic version of the American cowboy, saying: “I feel like when you see cowboys portrayed, you see only a few versions. You never really get to see what some of the original cowboys really look like. They look like us, they look like me, they look Black, they look Native American.”


The collection included bolo ties, neck bandanas, and a few lassos. But, apart from some psychedelically-embroidered denim chaps, it felt less like a reanimation of Western wear than a curation of it. The recombinations were exciting but the pieces themselves, spangled suits and yoked shirts, read as literal interpretations of the embroidered suits designed by Turk or Cohn, designs that were themselves a few layers of meaning away from “authentic cowboy.” While models were diverse, the clothes recalled the aesthetics of the Wild Bill era, which purposefully left out the black and indigenous cowboys that Pharrell claims to be representing. The show was, at its core, a timeline of cowboy aesthetics curling inward on itself — a Western diamond-backed ouroboros.


When Beyoncé appeared in Pharrell’s signature studded Louis Vuitton suit and Stetson hat at the 2024 Grammys, it recalled the old country stars outfitted in sparkly Nudie suits. Here was a musician-designer collaboration that evoked history and a new, more globalized future. For an iHeartRadio Music Awards appearance, Beyoncé reached for an archival Versace look, from Gianni Versace’s Western-influenced FW92 collection. As she plays with outsider (read: European) visions of the cowboy, she reinforces the parallels that Cowboy Carter draws between country outlaw and Blackness.  The number-crunching Instagram account DATA, BUT MAKE IT FASHION reported a 19% jump in the popularity of cowboy hats in the week following Beyoncé’s country announcement, including celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Katy Perry. If it feels like a costume, one could argue that cosplaying cowboy is itself the great American tradition — from cowboy hats in California to the lifted pickups in suburban subdivisions.


L-R: Stella McCartney FW24; Antonio Marras Pre-Fall 2024; Tom Ford FW14

The infinity mirror of Western wear appeared on other European runways, too. English designer Stella McCartney showed a modern spin on chaps, both in paillettes and minimal, studded leather as part of her FW24 collection. Meanwhile, Italian designer Antonio Marras presented fringed fabric chaps as part of a Pre-Fall 2024 collection that seems to have emerged from an alternate universe American West, with shapes and textiles that appear at once otherworldly and appropriative.


This is Baudrillard’s hyperreality — perpetual imitation of a forgotten “authentic” original.


Texas-born Tom Ford’s 2014 spin on the cowboy boot, cut from high-pile black velvet and balanced on a stiletto heel, contains both the memory of the leather pull-tabs favored by early vaqueros and the costume drama of a Nudie suit. As the Millennium dawned, cowboy boots were deeply associated with country music, which had settled into a cultural low point after a renaissance in the 90s. Fifteen years later, Ford’s boot seemed to be reclaiming the cowboy boot object from that unflattering association. In a review for the New York Times, Suzy Menkes suggested that Ford had designed boots “to put the Rodeo back in Rodeo Drive.”


Once Ford had decontextualized the cowboy boot, other major designers tried their hand at the American staple, including many who were not American. Saint Laurent showed tall minimalistic versions of the cowboy boot for SS20, while Danish streetwear darling Ganni has been producing dirt-road-appropriate boots since 2015. Many of the European reinterpretations were more easily recognizable as cowboy boots than the velvet stilettos that Ford created, as if an object farther from its original context was obliged to follow stricter aesthetic rules. Either way — the collective fantasy of the American West was now an international project.


Ford is the rare high-fashion designer with deep roots in the American West. Today, Texas brands like Rosecut Clothing and Fort Lonesome work in the spirit of vintage Western wear, but do so outside the gates of high fashion. Meanwhile, European designers riff on the cowboy fantasy.


F-W: Chloé FW24; Maison Margiela FW24; Isabel Marant FW24

Last year, Maison Margiela’s iconic Tabi boot went west with a new Tabi Western Boot silhouette, that pairs the familiar split-toe design with a slouchy shaft, leather pull tabs, and a pointed toe. Many of the European designers simplify the traditionally maximalist cowboy boot, often with only one distinctly Western characteristic at a time. For FW24, Gucci showed texture boots with a subtle shape and minimal stitching over rich reptilian textures, while the Versace version of a cowboy boot was shorter and untextured with a pointed toe and bootstrap.


Meanwhile, Chloé showed slick duster coats that were giving gunslinger, with their high-necked collars and caped shoulders, alongside blousy dresses, thick with ruffles, that could belong in a Wild West saloon. At Isabel Marant, a suede jacket with fringe and leather-lace trim, or a blanket shawl draped around the model’s shoulders, evokes a non-specific Wild West — more fantasy than history.


And then there is the West of reality: a massive territory composed of a thousand distinct Americas. The suburban flatlands of Kansas. The rhinestone spectacle of the Fort Worth Stockyards. The nuclear testing legacy of the New Mexico desert. Diverse from the immense ski chalets of Jackson to the shining sea of upper California. Alternately: impoverished or wealthy, fetishized or pathologized. Almost supernatural in scope, the metonym “West” was just an attempt to impose a unifying heritage in a country so big that anything collective could only be fabricated. Enigmatic, even to Americans. Contemporary designers and popstars are doing exactly what Buffalo Bill did in the 1800s: selling a placid, theme park version of the West that never existed and doesn’t exist today.


Hailey Bieber for US Vogue — October 2019

Baudrillard described America as a country founded on “the miraculous premise of a utopia made reality.” A place that coerces naivety from its viewers with an insistence on its artifice. The mythology of the American West appeals to us because it erases reality, with all its violence and moral complexity. To distort it is to reinforce its power; a lesser mythology might be more readily harnessed. Our nostalgia for the cowboy is for a cowboy who did not exist. And to claim the objects of the West, stripped of their practical function, is to wrap oneself in the fabric of that collective fantasy — about a place where natural resources are boundless, good guys wear white hats, and the skies are not cloudy all day. 🌀


 

Rose McMackin is a Texas-based writer, editor, and cowboy boot collector. Find her on social media at @rosemcmackin.

コメント


bottom of page