How The West Was Worn…Dressing Up


In a previous post, we presented a brief overview of the sack coat/sack suit during the late 19th Century. In the course of writing that post, it prompted us to think about men’s clothing in the American West and especially how the reality often differs from the image that’s been created through film and television. It has been often noted that the 19th Century was a much more formal time than today and one’s clothing choices reflected one’s status and how one was regarded by their peers. While occupations such as laborers, cowboys, miners, farmers, and the like required rugged practical clothing, this did not mean that these individuals wanted to project a rough image to project to the world and when possible, more formal clothing was preferred. The idea of “keeping it real” was an alien one and would have made little sense to the average 19th Century man.

Here are several interpretations of the same events/people:



Clanton Gang

As a bit of a corrective, below are some pictures of “real people” of the American West. While it’s obvious that many of these people sitting for these pictures had dressed themselves up for the camera, the fact that they DID speaks volumes. Clearly, social convention and a desire to portray oneself to the best advantage played a major role here.

To begin, here are some pictures of some famous people, as they really looked:  🙂


Wyatt Earp


Bat Masterson, 1879

Lawmen Dodge City

Original photograph of the ‘Dodge City Peace Commission’ in June 1883. Front, l-r; Chas. E. Bassett, Wyatt S. Earp, Frank McLain, and Neil Brown. Back, l-r; W. H. Harris, Luke Short, W. B. Bat Masterson, and W. F. Petillon. This is the version with Petillon beside Masterson. Ford County Historical Society, Dodge City, Kansas


Ike Clanton

Pat Garrett

Pat Garrett

Curley Bill Brocious

Curley Bill Brocious- One of the only known portraits.


But lawmen and outlaws are only one aspect, there were also others:


Cowboys, John Slaughter Ranch


Cowboys, c. 1880

This is only a small sampling but we think it conveys the basic idea that there’s definitely a bit of a difference between what actually existed and what we THINK existed. Of course, this has been an issue ever since the first Western was ever filmed but it still bears consideration in that in order to gain a better historical understanding, we need to keep the two separate.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this little side-trip into the West and we want to make it perfectly clear that we’re not denigrating the costuming found in movies versus reality- we know that they can be be vastly different with different goals- rather, we’re only pointing out that all too often, people tend to use film and television as a substitute for solid historical evidence. Each has its place but let’s not confuse the two. At least, that’s out take on it. 🙂

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