The (dress) code of the West

I was reluctant to wear my cowboy boots to my first line dancing class back in 1993, fearing they would be too cliched. We took the classes for fitness, knowing nothing about country music and being completely unaware of the line dancing craze of the early ’90s. I was completely immersed in Celtic music, we don’t listen to commercial radio, and we don’t watch television. I didn’t know who Garth Brooks was and had never heard “Achy Breaky Heart” or “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.” I never heard of Brooks and Dunn or Billy Ray Cyrus, but I could talk in-depth about such Celtic artists as Gerald Trimble and Planxty.
At the end of the first class, the teacher said, “Line dancing is done wearing western wear — cowboy boots and hats, western shirts and jeans.” The next week most students showed up in hats and boots, many shiny from the store, for we were city and suburban folks, and it made me ponder why music descended from southeastern traditions became associated with a modified dress code of the western working man.
Country music is descended from the British Isles ballad tradition and Appalachian fiddling, which was a modification of Irish and Scottish fiddling, influenced by African rhythms and notes. Early recording artists played fiddle tunes, sometimes solo, sometimes in bands, dressed in their Sunday best, but producers prodded them to switch from suits to overalls and straw hats, emphasizing cornpone humor. Jimmie Rodgers, often called the “Father of Country Music,” started his performing career in suit and bowler but eventually switched to railroad duds and was promoted as the Singing Brakeman, having worked for a time on the railroad. He may have looked old-time, but his music was quite up to date for the time, a blend of country and blues that he called blue yodels.
The focus in the 1930s and ’40s shifted from cornpone fiddlers and banjo players to guitar-playing “cowboy” singers, the instrumentalists moving from the solo spot to accompanist. The imagery switched from the South to the West with the introduction of Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy, in movies produced by Republic Studios. The South had come to represent rural backwardness, whereas the West represented freedom and adventure, an inaccurate but appealing image that took hold in the late 1800s while the West was still the Wild West. “Hillbilly” had become a derogatory term, whereas the romanticized notion of the cowboy, who in reality worked long, dirty, dusty hours far from home, took hold with the popular imagination, and the music of the South donned the clothing of the West.
The singing cowboy wore the 10-gallon hat, metal ornamented leather wear, and pants, shirts and boots cut in the western style, which descended from clothing worn by Spanish cowboys of the Southwest. Typical of the fabrication of the image was the singer Woodward Ritter, who attended Northwestern Law School in east Texas, took the name Tex and cultivated the cowboy look. By the 1940s most country artists dressed in western outfits, and that trend continues today. How many singers these days wear straw hats and farm duds?
So much of it is image. A singer can wear simple jeans and a T-shirt, but put on a cowboy hat and we immediately think “country singer.” And if a non-country artist wears a cowboy hat, it seems incongruous. Each style of music has its outfit.
The country music and line dancing boom of the early ’90s peaked and passed, as is the way with fads. But the power of the West will be with us for a long time.

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