I have lots to say about why I love a Western shirt so much – and why you may need one as well – but I can tell you that none of it comes from sitting atop a horse. I have never been much of a rider, but I have ALWAYS been mesmerized by the rodeo.
Cheyenne Frontier Days in 1982 was my first. It was right before my senior year of college, and I had stayed in Colorado for the summer. A few of my girlfriends and I got in a car and drove to Wyoming. (We didn't have much else going on.) It was like another world. There was so much to soak up. Not only the livestock and the corndogs, but the people around us. I remember hearing this snippet from the girls in the group in front of us: "Take this #%&* light beer back and get me a reeeeeeeallll beer, Sunny." These girls were tough! I was kind of impressed. But when it came to their outfits, I was actually kind of disappointed. Lee jeans, roper boots, concert t-shirts and tank tops... hardly anyone in a Western shirt. Urban Cowboy had just come out, and I guess they all wanted to look like Sissy. But what a waste, I thought. I mean, since you really are a cowgirl, why not wear the good stuff?
Fast forward 25 years to Wisconsin, where the Iowa County Fair had its own miniature rodeo, along with a livestock show courtesy of the local FFA chapter. (Future Farmers of America!) My youngest was small enough to be afraid of the horses and cows... and I kind of was too! With this doomsday visual in my head – her getting crushed by a Guernsey – we spent most of our time in the livestock tent with the chickens and rabbits, away from all the big animals. But watching the horses from the safety of the stands was another story. It is incredible! I had the same feeling a few years ago when I was a guest at the Houston Rodeo. It feels like a huge dose of America when they open the show... a sparkly-suited cowgirl STANDING atop the horse, flag in hand. And the horse is galloping all the while! Spectacular. Jane Pendry, my wonderful English friend (and the designer behind Dovima,) shares my rodeo infatuation as she often visits Texas for trunk shows. She lives in Paris so it is even more foreign to her. My favorite event to watch is something called Mutton Busting, which is for the under-7 crowd — it is basically bull riding, but on sheep! Tiny children doing their very best to not get bucked off the back. Adorable.
But a girl doesn't have to ride or rope to look the part. And THAT part – looking the part – is what I am good at. I may not be quite as glamorous or spangled as the women who stand on horses (I guess their costumes are designed to be visible from the very farthest reaches of the stands!) but I just cannot get enough of the cowgirl look. The multitalented photographer/jewelry designer Lisa Eisner shares my fascination, too – she has this awesome book called Rodeo Girl, full of photographs of young women vying for the Miss Rodeo America title. Lisa is originally from Cheyenne herself, so it's the real deal. (Another one of her books, The Height of Fashion, is such a favorite that we own several copies, almost none of which are intact, because so many pages have been torn out and tacked up on mood boards over the years!) It is amazing and inspiring and filled with exactly the kinds of pictures and outfits that have been in my imagination since that day in 1982. THESE were the girls I was expecting to see.
And they exist in real life, too. I am kind of in awe of my friend Denise McGaha's teenage daughter Jori, a verifiable cowgirl with – unlike Pauline or me – absolutely no fear of animals. Each year she raises and cares for a calf, and then shows it to compete for her FFA blue ribbon. Denise may be a fancy decorator, but she, too, knows about cattle and farm life from her own childhood... she can go from the barn to Brunschwig & Fils in a Texas minute. I love it. And then when I was at Vogue, I was in awe of the impossibly laid-back and chic Jade Hobson, one of the fashion editors. (Not only did she look cool, but she was a million times softer-spoken and kinder to her assistant than my boss was to me, which certainly played a role.) She would practically float down the halls in her chambray western shirts and flannel trousers. Very Ralph Lauren. I did my best to copy her look with a chambray shirt from the thrift store. Mine was not a true Western style, so I compensated – or perhaps took it up a notch – by adding a turquoise bolo tie, a souvenir from a quick trip to Arizona. Yikes. I felt so cool, though... and I think I even brought one back for Sid!
But that's probably enough of all the cowgirls I have known and loved. I can't help it – there are so many great references. The rodeo spirit is alive and well in my closet these days, but I am not wearing a bolo tie, nor a fringed halter top à la Debra Winger. We have had a Western shirt on our line for years – but only recently were we able to convince our shirt maker to buy a snap machine for the real-deal pearl snaps. More authentic! And so much fun to take it off in the evening with one dramatic flick of the wrist. I love the cotton plainweave in cream... the color is so chic with bright white jeans. I suppose a real rodeo girl would not wear white – they would get too dusty, and part of the event is looking sharp. Blue jeans would work just as well... and black even better if you are actually riding. Rock'n'roll cowgirl. There are some very charming Liberty-printed ones, too, which are slightly less on the nose. One even has shell buttons instead of snaps. The style is very flattering with the pointed yoke and the two pockets anchoring either side of your décolletage. Sexy. You can go all-out western... or mix it up. Replace your cowboy boots with buckle shoes or ballet flats, and you are French/Western. In fact... Franco-American!
In the end, I don't think there is much else that is utterly, uniquely, more American in its origins. Western style has always been one of my favorite reference points, but at this particular time in history, I am feeling extra patriotic and optimistic. I just looked it up, and it looks like the Houston Rodeo hasn't been canceled this year... just postponed to May. Fingers crossed I can be there. I imagine there is a whole untapped fashion moment around rodeo masks – will there be fringe? Rhinestones? Denim? All of the above? Until then, I might just re-watch Giant for the tenth time. It feels kind of timely.