When it comes to the Wild West, many images come to mind. In fact, the grizzled old cowboy facing a desolate frontier is one of the most recognizable symbols and identities within the American imagination. For fans of historical fashion statements, this period is also known for being one of the greatest vestiges of leatherwork.
But you might hear people talking about cowboys and the Wild West in other terms. For example, the modern casino has taken quite a few notes from the saloons of yore. Though most blackjack and roulette players favor virtual platforms available remotely, the cowboy spirit is particularly alive through gaming pastimes. The saloon was a place where cowboys met and socialized—and even some women, as with Alice Ivers, a divorcee who was known to frequent these establishments.
Well-known images aside, cowboys in the Wild West lived according to dozens of unspoken rules—many of which remain little-known. For example, cowboys of yore knew that the original cowboys came from Mexico where they’re still known as vaqueros. They also knew not to wave to fellow countrymen while on horseback, nodding their chins instead in order not to spook the horses. And they certainly knew that, under no circumstances, should they touch another cowboy’s hat.
If you think you know a lot about this era in the Wild West, think again. Let’s take a look at some of the more unique factoids about life on the Western frontier, especially as they relate to leatherwork.
Legs of Iron
One of the most iconic pieces of leather clothing in a cowboy’s repertoire was his chaps. To this day, cowboys and vaqueros wear chaps in order to protect their legs from thorny bushes and other dangers, including inclement weather, while on horseback. The name ‘chaps’ comes from the Spanish ‘chaparehos’, which stems from the term ‘leg of iron’. Originally, these pieces were draped from the saddle before being separated into separate legs joined by a belt.
The most popular kind worn were called shotgun chaps, which most would recognize from famous Western flicks. But other designs like the wooly chaps and bat wing chaps were also popular. And aside from leather chaps, cowboys were also known to wear chinks and wrist cuffs.
Chinks are half-length chaps, which were generally designed for cowboys facing high temperatures. Many modern cowboys prefer this design because it’s lighter and more dynamic. Wrist cuffs, on the other hand, aren’t typically worn anymore. These pieces were designed to preserve shirt cuffs, as shirts were incredibly pricey back in the day.
Ancient Rome & China Meet the Modern War Pony
Let’s cover one of the most important parts of the cowboy’s leather supply list: his saddle. Without a horse, there’s no cowboy—and without a saddle, there’s no long-distance journeying through the high desert. But, as with leather clothing in general, the evolution of the saddle didn’t start anywhere near the frontier.
The very first culture to rely heavily on horses was the Assyrian world, which developed a rudimentary felt pad. This was improved greatly by the Ancient Romans, who introduced the saddle tree. Further developments from Ancient China, where a wooden frame was added in order to improve rider stability and displace weight off the horse’s spine. By the time vaqueros and cowboys were paying top dollar for leather saddles, this type of technology was already thousands of years old.
Snakes, Alligators, & Ostrich—Oh My!
Lastly, let’s cover the origin of all these lovely pieces of leatherwork from the Wild West. Though the vast majority of leather in the early 20th century came from cattle and sheep, those wandering the frontier earlier on were more likely to encounter hides from snakes, alligators, and even ostriches.
And what were these used for? While many people imagine a cowboy wearing a cowskin leather jacket, many preferred wool coats. In terms of saddles, cowhide was the top option. However, for chaps, cuffs, and other smaller items, snake, alligator, and ostrich leather was a lot more versatile in terms of stretch and weight.