101: History of the Western Shirt

Photo credit: Susan Einstein

Photo credit: Susan Einstein

In terms of wardrobe staples, the western shirt is about as iconic as it gets. It is one of the few pieces rugged enough to withstand both harsh frontier conditions and changing fashion trends throughout the last two centuries. In honor of this impressive and unique heritage, I did some research to discover the origins and development behind one of the most persistent shirt styles in modern attire:

The western shirt was born in the early 19th Century as American settlers were steadily expanding into the western territories. Despite the relatively sparse population throughout the frontier, outposts were incredibly cosmopolitan, melding the popular dress of statesmen, their European counterparts, and the rugged workwear of the Native Americans.

Native American animal skin shirt (Photo credit: Susan Einstein)

Native American animal skin shirt (Photo credit: Susan Einstein)

Given the relative isolation in the frontier, cotton and wool fabrics were difficult to come by. Rather than working in such ‘civilized’ dress, settlers opted to wear shirts made from animal skins. These pullovers were decidedly simpler than the cuffed and collared shirts we associate with the Wild West, but they outfitted generations until woven fabrics became more readily available many years later.

Photo credit: Susan Einstein

Photo credit: Susan Einstein

Towards the turn of the 20th Century, the nascent national railway system took root, granting settlers better access to manufactured goods. In addition to fabrics and other materials, the trains also helped to disseminate cultural capital as well. In 1883 (coincidentally the same year Hamilton was founded) Buffalo Bill Cody launched his first Wild West show that traveled throughout the US – sparking a widespread love affair with the Western lifestyle that permeates popular culture to this day.

Yet the western wear we know was born out of isolation and experimentation. Now with a reliable supply of woven fabrics, frontier tailors were tasked with constructing durable, yet comfortable shirts particularly suited for working miners and cattlemen. It was during this period in the early 1900’s that the iconic western shirt began to take shape. Tailors introduced longer tails so that shirts wouldn’t pull loose while on horseback – as well as five-button cuffs for posterity. To provide more support and durability, they also gradually adopted the signature pointed yoke across the shoulders and chest. If nothing else, this distinct nuance is arguably the most quintessential and persistent design element of the western shirt.

Photo credit: Susan Einstein

Photo credit: Susan Einstein

Photo credit: Susan Einstein

Photo credit: Susan Einstein

It wasn’t until the 1920’s, when western culture made it’s way onto the big screen, that the shirts carved their niche in the fashion world. Catering to a widespread fascination with the frontier, filmmakers were quick to adorn America’s favorite protagonists with rugged, well-worn clothing that characterized the previous era of westward expansion. The western shirt first appeared in the high fashion world during the 50’s, predominantly on the backs of movie starts and prominent musicians.

Hamilton 1883 western

Hamilton 1883 western

And now, many decades later, workers, celebrities, and everyone in between still tap into a rich heritage of pioneering individuality and uncompromising detail – at least when it’s done right!

 

*This post is adaption of a previously published article written for Hamilton Shirt Co.

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