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How The Cowboy Became Fashion’s Latest Icon

A rebellious spirit, a reputation for being lawless and listening to no one: after many months stuck within the perimeters of our bedrooms under the careless guise of a government more concerned with after work garden parties than the wellbeing of the general public, it’s no surprise many of us are now looking to The Cowboy to find a sense of freedom.

As Esther Newman puts it, “LFW designers are mourning for a life lost; they want the glitz and the glamour back”, pointing to the masses of fringe, feather and rhinestone embellishments we’re currently seeing on the front row in an article for Refinery29. Earlier in the year, Western boots and belts frequently appeared on those attending Copenhagen Fashion Week, while Chanel opened their Spring/Summer 2022 show with Charlotte Casiraghi of Monaco (Granddaughter of Hollywood icon Grace Kelly) riding a horse down the runway, setting the direction for fashion this year on a steady trot.

It’s clear that many of us are looking for our very own escape to the Wild Wild West, desperate for a time that feels far, far away from the ones we’re currently experiencing, and a taste of old school glamour reminiscent of Hollywood cowboys like Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, or Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Arguably a look that never goes out of style, channeling The Cowboy has become about more than throwing on a pair of boots or some Levi’s. In an era when fast fashion massacres trends in a matter of weeks (note the popularity of TikTok videos showing the trends people wish they’d never bought into), embodying The Cowboy is an act of rebellion in a culture that demands we constantly consume. To look the part is to also embody the part - to take on the attitude of a cowboy, an outlaw that exists outside of the expectations of modern culture. A brand iconic to the American West, with their slogan ‘Authentic Western Wear’, cowboys were among the earliest wearers of 501® waist overalls. Known for their durability, Levi jeans were specifically designed to withstand the demands of ranch duties and hours spent riding horses. To wear the same item today is to carry a piece of history with us, and a look that will forever be timeless. As such, to create a uniform made up of items meant to last forever - whether a pair of vintage boots, a buckle, or a sturdy pair of the aforementioned Levi’s - is refreshing in a moment where our tendencies to consume more and throw away even more have become worryingly normalised in the face of a climate catastrophe.

With many of us seeking a life different to the one we were living pre-pandemic, dressing The Cowboy has come to represent a cultural turning point. Early on, those privileged enough fled from cities to more rural parts of the country in search for a space they could call their own, away from the densely populated neighbourhoods where social distancing felt like an impossible task. As a growing number of people documented their experiences living in the great outdoors online, those of us still living in cities looked on in envy. There was Brent Underwood, who documented his move to the abandoned ghost town Cerro Gordo, California, recording himself exploring long closed down mines in the quest to find a pair of 100-year-old Levi’s, and gaining 1.45 million followers while doing so.

Yet there still exists a strong culture of inner city cowboys across America, as depicted in the film Concrete Cowboy released last year. Based on Greg Neri’s book ‘Ghetto Cowboy’, mainstream representations of cowboys in popular culture have often failed to pick up on the community of Black urban cowboys and cowgirls. As filmmaker Sam Nixon, who documented Philadelphia’s Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club on which Concrete Cowboy was also based, said in an interview with Dazed, “There are great stories across the US of African American urban cowboys and cowgirls, from New Orleans to Compton, even New York.” Indeed historians estimate that one in every four cowboys was Black, despite what classic Hollywood films from the 1960s and 1970s would have you believe.

In an article for TIME, Paulina Cachero explains how, “Black-owned stables have existed on Fletcher Street for more than a century, and the area continues to be a cornerstone for the Black urban cowboy community in Philadelphia”. In 2004, the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club was officially launched as a non-profit after a century of Black cowboys and horsemanship operating in North Philadelphia. It exists today as a way of supporting the local community through caring for horses, providing positive examples to local youth spending time outdoors, and encouraging academic excellence. When channeling The Cowboy, it’s therefore important to remember that we’re not just channeling the standard white American male so many will inherently be familiar with, or the glamour of London Fashion Week’s latest runways, but also a history and a subculture of Black cowboys and cowgirls who continue to embody the way of life.

While The Cowboy is often thought of as a rebellious and lawless figure, central to the culture is the idea of community and collective care, and perhaps this is what we’re craving most. With many suffering at the expense of careless decisions made by governments worldwide, The Cowboy is symbolic of the potential joy that can be found in community and outside of contemporary societal structures. While fashion may quickly move onto its next icon, let’s not allow the spirit of The Cowboy to be forgotten - even if we do choose to swap out our boots for sandals in the coming months.

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