What is it about men running around in leather and suede, chaps, tight shirts under fitted vests, bandanas, aged denim, cowboy boots and hats, perched on top of horses—and under a healthy modicum of scruff—all the while triumphing over evil, or embodying it, and breaking hearts left and right? The constant comeback/rebirth of the Western—and Western wear for men—is no pure sales pitch, nor hype. It’s quite simply the epitome of the original idea of American masculinity.
Embedded into the nation’s cultural consciousness since before the closing of the American frontier in the 19th century—think dime-store novels, then Western movies, then TV shows (Gunsmoke, Bonanza et al.)—it’s iconic imagery for men the way bridal and princess images are for women.
While those clothing descriptions come straight from the first few episodes of HBO’s new epic fantasy/Western series Westworld, they might also come from the recent remake of The Magnificent Seven (or the original 1960 version starring he-men Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, and Charles Bronson), or from Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), or The Coen brothers’ True Grit (2010), or 3:10 to Yuma (2007), or Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), or from any of John Ford’s classic Westerns—or from that other HBO Western drama, Deadwood (2004 to 2006). Or—if you think about it—from a porno movie, gay or straight, for that matter: masculinity taken to the extreme.
Talk about extremes. Western style clothes for men originated for the sheer purpose of enduring harsh elements in a wild terrain—and evolved into something that’s now both everyday and the epitome of sexy. Accidental connection? Endurance itself is the height of masculinity, no? Just ask Ralph Lauren, who reinvented Western wear and continues to sell it at every price point to men of all ages.
“The endurance of the trend itself comes from Western mythology and the American loner/bad-boy bad-ass look,” offers former WME agent-turned-Hollywood-style guru Andrew Weitz. “James Dean, Paul Newman, etc. It’s very masculine and rugged, and in many cases, acts as a symbol of American heroism. Also, a cool pair of rugged jeans and boots are timeless, as are Western shirts.”
Now jeans for men are obligatory—and seriously high priced—but of course, they didn’t start out as either. Denim was discovered to be the perfect fabric for farmers and land workers because no other fabric is more low-maintenance. “Levi’s discovered denim’s durabilty, that it can handle panning for gold, repeat wears,” says Vishaal Melwani, CEO of menswear brand Combatant Gentlemen. “Modern day work wear is what Western wear’s turned into. A high-quality, high-endurance product—a denim jacket doesn’t dwindle down: It lasts, it’s worn-in, it has a story. Men are meant to be classic, not showy. Western is a defined cut and fit for menswear for decades on decades. That style is not going anywhere soon!”
It doesn’t hurt that the stars of Westerns have always been tall, tough, brooding loners—Eastwood and John Wayne are the ultimate Wild West icons. No surprise that Westworld stars James Marsden, Ed Harris, Jimmi Simpson, Ben Barnes, and Rodrigo Santoro are all chiseled and buff enough to model for Ralph, Zegna, or Levi’s. Hence the likelihood that Westworld will inspire yet another round of retail sales of western inspired clothes at the designer and denim levels.
“The thing that attracts me and everyone else to 1900s Western wear,” says veteran costumer Ane Crabtree (Masters of Sex, Justified), who worked on the entire first season of Westworld, is that “there’s something virile and manly in it we haven’t quite felt in fashion recently. In many ways, fashion’s become fairly feminine and unisex for men. But something happened to me dressing these men in 19th-century clothes: I got a vision of a real man, total virility. I wanted a certain fit to the clothing—Western-cut jeans hang on a man’s posterior well because they’re made for a man to ride horses. Bodies were quite different then. Men worked the earth, were naturally built from the hard work, rather than hard workouts. It’s easy for us now to be drawn into the romantic notion of what it was to be a man back in the day! We got that from Sergio Leone Westerns!”
“Like military uniforms and turn-of-the-20th-century workwear, Western-inspired clothing is something that men and designers always come back to because it has its roots in function,” says Adam Welch, editor of Mr. Porter’s The Daily. “Things like jeans, shearling and suede jackets, and denim shirts weren’t just designed to look good. They had a real purpose at a time and place when men were expected to work on the land. As men get less and less hands-on in their day-to-day lives, this is an attractive association. But Western wear is all about individuality, too. Think of the lawless Wild West where every man stands for himself and dresses in his own way. It’s classic, rugged, and functional. It’s clothing for heroes. Who doesn’t want to be a hero?”
Mr. Porter is seeing strong sales this fall with Western-inspired silk rodeo shirts from Saint Laurent, embroidered denim from Dolce & Gabbana and Gucci, along with Givenchy’s take on the Western shirt, replete with metal collar tips. “Shearling has been a trend for several seasons now and is also selling well,” says Welch. “All of which suggests that people aren’t taking this look half-heartedly at the moment. These are slightly more adventurous options than the plaid shirt and denim jean.”
Saint Laurent’s corduroy-trimmed washed denim jacket, Gucci’s embroidered stone-wash jeans, and Acne Studio’s eyelet-detailed suede jacket are more examples of the trend moving on the site. “And there are plenty of other references to it,” Welch notes: “Fringing and cowboy prints at Coach, and more fringing at Dries Van Noten and Lanvin. The Andean-inspired Missoni show was full of Western-worthy gear, from Mexican blanket-like sunrise knits to zip-up Harrington jackets with front yoke embroidery.”
No one knows more about the constant appeal of Western looks—and suits—for men than the two women who run The Official Nudie, Jamie Nudie and Mary Lynn Cabrall, who are set to open Nudie’s Honky Tonk club in Nashville on Nov. 18, an outgrowth of the brand and its cultural history. Jamie’s grandfather, Nudie Cohn, virtually invented the Rhinestone Cowboy, creating Western-inspired flamboyant suits starting in the ’40s for Gene Autry, then Ronald Reagan, Hank Williams, Elvis, and Gram Parsons. But recently, the line’s been revived—featured on an episode of Showtime’s Roadies—and Flavor Flav and Kesha now wear Nudie, as do many other rock stars and fans of exotic Western wear.
“We do all custom, and call it cowfolk couture!” says Cabrall, who says a Nudie suit can go for as much as four grand a pop. “Western wear has kind of exploded this year with big name designers. They change season to season, but Western wear always sells. For us, it’s continuous. Now designers like Gucci are putting a Bohemian spin on it. We call ’em Nudie Knockoffs. We don’t take any legal action. The fashion world will always be like this. We find it flattering!”
And it seems there’s never been such a proliferation Western influence out there in clothes, from Missoni shirts to Topman, but also across the board: Byredo’s new Rodeo fragrance, Western-style Eames chairs, Lladro dinnerware, and of course, for women’s wear, long floral prairie dresses, denim everything, Western booties, and fringed leather bags and jackets.
Not that Westworld consulted any of these brands or designers to source its worn-in tweedy jackets, textured vests and shirts, and shoestring ties, or cowboy hats and boots, which have never gone out of fashion, and are sold all over the internet, from authentic to knockoffs. Frye continues to do cowboy boots, but so does Rag and Bone—every single season—and they always sell.
“We made all the clothes for all the leads and featured players,” says Crabtree. “I had a giant team of tailors who had their own building on our Santa Clarita set. We even made the fabrics! There isn’t enough of the kind of vintage fabrics we needed to create six of each costume—what you need if a character’s in a fight or death scene. We sourced out a weaver in upstate New York who weaves the fabric for The Man in Black’s textured jacket. And we had to hand paint the fabric to make it look a certain vintage way. It takes a lot of planning! It’s insane and it’s beautiful. So I really work my tailors to death—they’re old-world tailors from Iran, India, Russia. It’s actually easier to make it all than find it!”
“And I do see this affecting fashion!” she laughs. “We were on the show for like a year. During that year, I did start to notice this beautiful Victorian /Western thing happening in women’s wear. But also with men: I started to notice gentlemen becoming more well dressed, being a looker as opposed to being really casual. The men’s collections are now getting as much attention now as women’s. I feel boys are wanting to look like men again. I hope Westworld will have influence on upcoming collections for men. The Italians always seem to do American really well! The neat, clean, very Americana thing that is very romantic. It feels quite akin to our personal histories right now, doesn’t it?”
After all, technology has created a new wide open frontier, a kind of virtual Wild Wild West. “That topic is bigger than this conversation,” Crabtree says. “I understand why men might look to it as a kind of inspiration. While we were making the show, our crew started to dress a little bit different. Some of the PAs were breaking out the cowboy hats—and many of the actors told me how good they felt in these clothes. They left the set looking a little more inspired than they came!”
“If we see some Westworld influence on the runway, it would be amazing!” says costumer Trish Summerville (Hunger Games, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), who designed all the looks for Westworld’s pilot. “This look is something guys can make work in their daily lives. It’s the layering thing. It can be fashionable or casual, is in flattering earth tones, textures, a lot of black—the tones guys love—and it’s not over the top. You will probably see some guys with kerchiefs around the neck pretty soon. I like the look of the Henley and scarf, that’s cool. Masculine guys can wear it, and everyday guys can wear it. It doesn’t feel like a costume. It is stuff you can actually wear daily. It all looks true to the 19th century, and to today. It doesn’t get better than that.”