Western Costume Ideas


AMERICAN PIONEERS – Frontiersmen and Women
It was a hard life for the American Pioneers with both men and women having to be equally hardy and adept at defending both life and property. For the true pioneer woman, the costume consisted of a plain high-necked long dress with bonnet and apron. Although patterned materials were used, these tended to fade after harsh and repeated washing. In the West, practicality was a consideration and for horse-riding, younger women developed ‘skirts’ which were rather like baggy trousers or skirts with buttons.

Also from the Old West (and a good source of reference) were the series of stories about the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ from Laura Ingalls Wilder. These were based on her childhood experiences growing up in a Pioneer family and were turned into a TV series which ran from 1974 through to 1983.

Bandits and Outlaws in Western movies were often seen wearing a Mexican poncho, sombrero, bullet belt and moustache. However, not all bandits and outlaws were necessarily Mexican. To move away from the stereotype, why not try a long duster coat over traditional cowboy garb and go as an outlaw?

Alternatively, you might want to be a goody rather than a baddie, so why not go as a Bounty Hunter?   He or she was usually a loner who spent the time tracking down outlaws in order to earn a living. They were often in it for the money rather than offering a ‘community service’. Some developed their skills to eventually market themselves as ‘detectives’, which was perceived as a more respectable profession.

In many a western film, a desperate situation was often ‘saved by the cavalry’. In practice, keeping the peace between the native American Indians, and the white settlers who coveted their land was an impossible task – there was an average of one soldier for every 66 sq. miles of territory to be patrolled. Clothing issued to the cavalry were leftovers from the Civil War stockpiles, so might not fit that well (good excuse for an ill-fitting outfit!). The style of uniform had changed during the civil war with unionists and confederates adapting their look dependant upon availability of materials. The ‘Uniform’ of a cavalryman basically consisted of light blue wool trousers, dark blue heavy wool jackets with choke collars, grey flannel shirts, knee-length boots, tops turned down and hats according to troop.

The Wild West saw a wide assortment of different cowboys, each with his own look. In spite of the wide range of ‘off-the-peg’ costumes available, many people can put together their own cowboy outfit with the help of a few accessories.  Most traditional western cowboys preferred plain styles and dark colours and cowboy hats are essential. The only relief from the sombre image was the brightly coloured kerchief worn around the neck. Chaps – leather-style breeches in open or wraparound style may also be worn.  If you are going with a partner, the use of a horse costume might also be of interest.

Aside from the more traditional cowboy images, there are also fictional cowboy heroes you can choose from, such as Woody from Toy Story or The Lone Ranger, with his Native American sidekick, Tonto.

Technically ‘cowgirls’ as such, did not exist, as the real Wild West made no distinction between the sexes. Women who worked ‘out on the range’ wore the same practical clothing and did the same sort of work where possible. All were equal and many developed their own ranching and droving businesses. In the world of costuming there are, of course a large number of excellent cowgirl costumes available, some of which are based on skirts and tops rather than the typical jeans look.

Nowadays it is more PC to call them Native Americans rather than Indians and Squaws.  There are a variety of costumes on the market, some more covered up than others. We also offer a range of Indian accessories such as weapons and headdresses.   

Native Indian Brave (Male) – This is one costume where you might want to skip authenticity – an Indian brave on the warpath was truly stripped for action, wearing only a breechclout (a strip of narrow cloth which passed through the legs and over a belt, hanging down at the front and back) and leggings (two side-fringed trouser-leg-like items which attached to the same belt). Although vests were worn at other times, they were too hot to be worn in action and could be a hindrance in battle. An alternative to the Breechclout was a form of apron consisting of two squares of decorated cloth tied at the hips. There are plenty of more practical outfits more suitable to our colder climate on the market.

Native Indian (Female) – The term ‘squaw’ is frowned upon, being synonymous with ‘prostitute’ in native language. Despite the likes of famous female Indians such as Pocahontas and Minnie Ha-Ha, females were very much second-class citizens, more like property than equals to men. On the other hand, being vital to the survival of the tribe, they were the most fiercely defended by an Indian male, aside from his headdress and hunting weapons.  As above, Native Indian female costumes available on the market may put practicality over authenticity.

Marshall - Federal Marshalls were State/National Law officers, whose roles were similar to that of the Sheriff.   Amongst the famous marshalls from the wild west were Wyatt Earp and ‘Wild Bill’ Hickock.  A dark Victorian style suit and hat.
Sheriff – The sheriff was the local law enforcer.  An outfit for a sheriff is not much different to a standard cowboy. The addition of a star Sheriff’s badge helps to create the look. Sheriffs typically tended to dress in dark colours, notably black.

Barkeep/Bartender – A stalwart image from Wild West films – usually seen handing (or sliding) drinks to customers and diving for cover at the first sign of trouble. A bar-keep apron, possibly work with a waistcoat. and table-clean cloth might come in handy!

Saloon Girls – Although they might have appeared as entertainers cum-showgirls many saloon girls could turn their hands to anything that would earn them a living. The main aim was to separate the erstwhile punter from his money. Saloon girls were often employed by the establishment where they worked, but some would not be adverse to a little individual self-enterprise, with the best rising to develop their own businesses.

There are obvious similarities between Saloon Girl costumes and the French Can-can & Moulin Rouge outfits. Most outfits come in a range of permutations of basic costumes and accessories: The basic costume typical consists of a corset or basque, usually in lace and satin-type material with a lace-up front or back, and a separate skirt which may be frilled or ruched and gathered or split to show the leg(s).  We stock saloon girl, can-can and burlesque style costumes and all the accessories to go with them, including feather boas (in a range of colours), fishnet tights and gloves.

Saloon Owner/Entrepreneur – If you are bored with the idea of just being ‘a saloon girl’ why not think about becoming a Saloon Bar owner? In the entrepreneurial Old West, many Saloon bar-owners were female. Some of them offered their customers more than drink and gaming facilities, as well as somewhere to wait before the next gunfight broke out! When looking for role models for this character, one is drawn to the 1930s femme fatale Mae West, and her performances in ‘Klondike Annie’ and ‘Belle of the Nineties’.

Aside from the bonafide showmen who lived to entertain, there were some more unscrupulous showmen and ‘snake-oil’ salesmen willing to part punters from their cash and exploit their credibility. The aim of the showman is to dress to impress and dazzle the audience. Therefore a flashy or ornate vest/waistcoat under a well-tailored frock suit was important to create the right impression. Showmen wishing to peddle medicine or other products might wish to convey an air of authority through use of spectacles, walking cane or other trappings of the rich and knowledgeable.

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