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For many of us, the Western clothing trend is little more than a passing fad. It’s an excuse to don our most costumey cowgirl clothes, layer fringe over fringe, and wear cowboy hats unironically for the first time, well, ever. But for actual Westerners, the movement is laden with cultural significance. Much of the Western wear we know and love harkens back to the rodeo. Our endlessly trendy outfits are the offspring of the uniform that cowboys and cowgirls have been wearing for decades—button-downs, jeans, and boots that have their roots in riding horses, lassoing steers, and tending to the family ranch. Put simply, our must-haves are nothing more than knockoffs of the things genuine Westerners have owned and worn for years.
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to fly to Las Vegas to attend the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. The veritable epicenter of Western culture, the WNFR is a 10-day event involving parties, pageants, and competitions. On Wednesday, I attended a pre-WNFR party hosted at a Vegas nightclub. On Thursday, I moseyed around Cowboy Christmas, a holiday market loaded with Western-inspired baubles. On Friday, I caught the opening of this year’s Miss Rodeo USA pageant, and post-gamed with a night at the rodeo. And on Saturday, I saw a world championship freestyle bullfighting match. At each of these events, I met people who’d genuinely call themselves cowboys and cowgirls, and I asked them to tell me a little bit about the Western fashion scene.
My main takeaway was that we’ve all gotten Western wear a little bit wrong.
For starters, the Western fashion movement encompasses a lot more than we collectively recognize. It’s not all button-downs, cowboy boots, fringe-lined jackets, and denim. Animal prints abound. Sequins are abundantly on offer. Bohemian silhouettes are about as ample as tailored, rodeo-worthy looks. Belts are more statement-making than bolo ties. Turquoise jewelry is everywhere. And you’re as likely to score “cowgirl clothes” at Free People as you are at Boot Barn—though some combination of the two is usually preferred.
But the other thing we’ve missed is how absolutely welcoming the Western fashion space is. Time and time again, the people I spoke to emphasized the Western movement’s inherent inclusivity: The most beautiful thing about Western fashion is that it invites you to be yourself. Rarely does an aesthetic not care whether you dress up or dress down. But in the Western world, denim-on-denim (and sometimes, on-denim) is as acceptable as an outfit crafted entirely from sequins. At every event I attended, some people were dressed to the nines with hair and makeup to match, and others were clad in the casual garb they’d wear on a ranch. And no one was out of place. It was clear, too, that everyone put care into what they wore; some merely expressed that care through sparkle, while others paid more attention to the details on their jeans.
This wholehearted acceptance of the gamut of style is something we’ve collectively gestured toward in recent years. It’s the kind of thing we’re aiming for when we embrace “ugly” fashion trends. When we celebrate the dad sneaker. When we take genuine, earnest pleasure in wearing the strangest vintage clothing we can find. Still, these moments are tinged with an undercurrent of irony; when we wear aughts-inspired clothing, we’re doing so self-awarely—implicitly making fun of the tacky clothes we all used to wear.
It’s disappointingly rare to find a sartorial movement that makes space for everyone to simply be themselves. We’re not quite there yet—but the Westerners have been there for a while.
1. Sequins are everywhere.
Real Westerners are all in on sequins. Sparkles abound in ways that thoroughly surprised me, given our mainstream understanding of what Western wear looks like. I was expecting structured silhouettes, rigid fabrics, and loads of leather accessories. And while those things were everywhere, sequins were just as abundant—not only at parties, but at the rodeo, too.
I asked Shaley Ham (of @WestDesperado) to tell me a little bit about where she buys her trendiest Western duds. Nasty Gal topped her list, and she literally showed up to the pre-WNFR party wearing the gold version of that silver longline top I’ve included below.
2. Turquoise is the jewelry go-to.
Western clothing isn’t entirely composed of so-called “cowgirl clothes“—a lot of Western ensembles drip with flowy, bohemian appeal. And one of the places this is most evident is in the jewelry sphere. Westerners go all in on all kinds of accessories—bags, boots, hats, bandanas—but they don’t skimp on jewelry, either. Ham showed up to a handful of WNFR events decked out in turquoise statement-makers, which she scored at places like Free People and Native American-owned Wild Honey Turquoise.
3. No outfit is complete without a jacket.
Western fashion is all about the layers. And no ensemble is complete until it’s been topped off with a hat, scarf, and jacket. Classic denim jackets, structured leather coats, flowy bohemian cardigans, and tailored velvet blazers are all on the menu. And they can get as statement-making—or as subtle—as you want them to.
4. Scarves and bandanas are the cherry on top of any look.
Though bandanas continue to endure as the go-to Western neckpiece, Ham says scarves of all kinds are welcome. Silky neck scarves, for instance, nod to classic Western fashion without taking the reference too literally. Some of her go-to brands for clothes and accessories include Retro West, Double D Ranch, and Free People—all of which are featured below.
5. Denim is a must, and Wrangler is a classic.
Denim is a huge part of Western culture. It’s what people wear when they’re riding horses or tending to the family ranch. And it’s also what athletes wear when competing in the rodeo. One of the biggest names in the space is Wrangler, a clothing brand that’s been around since 1904. Ham wears it. Ham’s mom, who used to compete in rodeos, wears it. Even Lil Nas X referenced it in his seminal hit, “Old Town Road.”
(Full disclosure: Wrangler covered my trip to Vegas. But the number of times people complimented Wrangler, praised the brand’s legacy, and referred to the company as an icon within Western fashion was so notable I couldn’t not mention it.)
6. Contemporary takes on cowboy boots are officially cowgirl-approved.
Unsurprisingly, cowboy boots abound within the Western fashion sphere. But according to Ham, trendy, modern-day takes on the cowboy boot are just as abundant. Boots of all shapes, sizes, and silhouettes can reference the classic cowboy boot—no square-toe required.
But if you do opt for a more traditional shoe, make sure your jeans are long enough to cover them almost entirely. (Experts on the Wrangler team said highwaters are only acceptable with modern boots. They’re a decided no-no with classic cowboys.)
7. Prints of all kinds abound.
The story of the American West isn’t merely one about cowboys and ranch-hands. Native Americans have played an equally important role—one many Westerners are apt to recognize and honor, often through their clothing. Many go-to Western shops are Native American-owned, and many popular pieces are rendered in prints and textiles that nod to the indigenous roots of the American West.
Other prints that are less easily categorized are plentiful, as well. (See the Cowgirl Relics blazer below.)
8. Leather bags are an absolute staple.
Leather bags are an excellent go-to, no matter your aesthetic. But in the Western world, leather crossbodies tend to come rendered in an animal prints, hand-tooled and textured, and covered in fringe. Modified designer bags—think: classic Louis Vuittons, dripping with fringe and adorned with stones—are particularly popular.
9. Luxe textiles, like velvet and faux fur, are just as abundant as leather and denim.
The West typically summons visions of denim, leather, suede—even snakeskin. But cowgirls love a velvet power suit, and they love a fluffy faux fur coat, too. These lavish textiles juxtapose beautifully with some of the more rugged jeans and jackets that comprise the Western sphere. And they seamlessly complement all the sequins and animal prints on offer.
10. Animal prints are big.
It should come as no surprise that a group of people known for raising cattle and riding horses appreciates a good animal print. But prior to my time in Vegas, I hadn’t associated the Western world with anything of the sort. Sure, cow spots had a place in cowgirl clothes. And snakeskin made sense, too. But leopard prints? In the West? No way.
My, how wrong I was. Everywhere I turned—no matter where I was—I was greeted by an array of animal prints. Leopard print dresses, and scarves, and cardigans. Snake print tops. I even spotted a pair of tiger stripe bell bottoms. Florals were infrequent, and polka dots were hard to find. But animal prints were absolutely profuse.
11. Belts are a big deal. And not just anyone can wear them.
Belts carry not just sartorial—but cultural—significance within the Western world. Because those classically Western, oval-shaped belt buckles aren’t mere fashion statements—they’re trophies. When a cowboy or cowgirl wins a rodeo event, they take home one of those big metal buckles. And they wear it proudly.
Given this, it’s generally frowned upon to wear one of those buckles, unless you or a loved one has genuinely won it. To avoid veering into “poser” territory, you should opt for a concho belt—or a leather belt with an entirely different buckle—instead.
12. Fringe is, of course, on the menu.
It should surprise no one to hear that fringe is a staple in the Western world. That said, I saw a lot less of it than I expected to. Other statement-making details—namely, sequins—seemed a lot more abundant.
13. And obviously, no ensemble is complete without a hat.
Bandanas aren’t the only accessories that have gotten referential makeovers. Cowboy hats are still incredibly popular, but Ham says she’s seen cowboy-esque hats popping up more and more. While many Westerners don’t wear cowboy hats 24/7, they are the go-to statement accessory when an outfit needs a little je ne sais quoi.
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