“Cowboys wear long-sleeved shirts year around, but not many wear leather vests and generally never have.”
While the statement may seem insignificant to many people, including today’s working cowboys, it answers frequent questions.
Often, those unfamiliar with the work that cowboys do wonder just why they don’t wear T-shirts or at least a short-sleeved cloth shirt.
An “expert on the subject,” Lee Ballentine, cowboy historian, clarified “Long sleeved shirts offer protection for cowboys.”
That’s “shield” from the elements, hot blazing sun or freezing cold, plus for defense and safety in their profession.
“Cowboys work with cattle in all types of surroundings from roping to pushing through a chute,” Ballentine said. “Their shirt sleeves help protect the cowboy from scrapes, cuts, bruises and rope burns.”
It’s been that way since the cowboy profession began. “In the American West, between 1839 and about 1880, cowboys actually wore about the same clothing as New York City men,” Ballentine said.
That was heavy cloth trousers, long-sleeved shirt, cloth vest, neck scarf, and their own-styled hat.
Denim was available in earlier days, but not typically used to make cowboy jeans. Denim jeans weren’t worn much by cowboys until mid-last century, it was noted.
“Of course, exception between city slickers’ style and working cowboys was leather chaps,” Ballentine pointed out. “Chaps were worn back then and are common attire of working cowboys today for protection of their legs.”
Chaps help prevent scrapes and bruises when riding horseback through sagebrush and timberland. Dismounted, a cowboy needs his chaps to reduce injury from rambunctious cattle when being worked.
While there are definite exceptions, most cowboys don’t regular wear vests of any kind, cloth or leather. “In the 1800s, cloth vests were common cowboy attire,” Ballentine verified.
“The Hollywood cowboy with his leather vest seems to have been mostly a Silver Screen invention,” Ballentine said. “Or at least the invention of the Western exhibition, or Wild West Show. Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley wore leather outfits, with fringe jackets, but these were the costumes of performers.”
Cloth shirts worn by cowboys of earlier years were sometimes made by tailors and available at “general stores.”
More commonly, shirts were sewed by wives and mothers of the cowboys, or “maybe by the cowboy themselves,” Ballentine noted.
Buttons typically fastened shirts, but buttonholes were not that easy to make. So, buttons were sometimes “hooked together” with a cloth remnant. “
Not as “stylish” today as the past century, snap-button shirts with “yoke-pattern” front and back became popular also following the movie trend.
When temperatures get too high on summer workdays, cowboys do sometimes roll up their shirt sleeves. “That makes it a little cooler and will also free up their arms for heavy work,” Ballentine commented.
During the coldest days, cowboys often wear two shirts along with a coat.
“One of the surprises of earlier day working cowboys, they dressed pretty much the same as every other man in America, only dustier,” Ballentine grinned.
With long-sleeved shirts typical attire, early day cowboys dressed much the same as every other man in America, only dustier. (File photo.)