Movie cowboy costumes - how did they get them so wrong?

I grew up watching old 1940’s and 50’s Westerns. Loved tv shows like Maverick, Virginian, Bonanza, and the Big Valley.

These photos of real saloons from 1900 were quite a surprise. Most of these people were wearing normal day to day clothes. They weren’t dressed in their Church clothes.

Scroll down to Drinkers at Ole Elliots. Men in jeans and work boots. A really good example of what working men in the West wore.

Imagine the reaction if John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart walked into one of these bars in Western Costume. :stuck_out_tongue:

I find it strange because there were still real Western men alive when cowboy westerns started filming in the early 1930’s. Some of the men in these photographs probably lived into the 1930’s.

They even got the guns wrong in Westerns. Note the revolvers used in the Stick em Up photo. Not your typical movie six shooter.

They wanted the characters in dramatic-looking clothing, not necessarily accurate clothing. The movie makers were telling a story, not filming a documentary.

The Pilgrims didn’t usually wear the black clothes we associate with them, either.

I would imagine there was some difference between the clothes worn by men who lived in towns and those who worked the range. Also between the fashions of the 1870s and those of 1900.

As for the really dandified images of cowboys that were patently false, you’d probably have to go back to the likes of Tom Mix in the silent era. Lord knows what movie moguls were thinking then. Probably had more to do with the stars’ egos than anything else. (At his Hollywood mansion, Mix’s name was up in lights!)

*Ransom Stoddard: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?
Maxwell Scott: No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. *

They were the right gun for the occupation. Watch *Maverick *or Bat Masterson carefully and you’ll see pocket pistols and derringers used often.

Cowboys weren’t often white, either. The majority were black or Mexican.

As an aside, I watched the original version of True Grit not long ago. The thing that struck me most about the movie (made in 1969) was how freakin’ clean everything (and everyone) was!

Your typical frontier towns had streets of mud that was full of horse shit and piss, with dust blowing everywhere; when you had to haul water and wood to your house just to bathe and wash, you didn’t do either all that often.

Until recently, the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s got this far better than Hollywood ever did.

Also, pistols like the six-shooter were very inaccurate and were used mostly at close range. In fact, most cowboys went unarmed most of the time.

They probably based his costumes on those of the performers in wild west shows.

I’m sure the costume designers for 1950’s TV Westerns had access to archived photos showing authentic clothing, but still opted for tight slacks, tight black leather vests and cockroach-in-the-corner-killing boots for the very best reason in Eisenhower’s America: subliminal homoeroticism!

I used to marvel at the way the Lone Ranger and Tonto would fall asleep by the campfire fully clothed (mask, bandanna, buckskins, boots, gun belts…) and then wake up fresh as daisies at the crack of dawn. (Never even had to take a leak first thing in the morning!) Even at the age of six, I knew there was something not quite … right about that. :smack:

Black and white photography makes any photo look really dated. I’d love to know what colors these people were wearing. I know denim has always been blue with brass rivets. A guy brought a 100 year old pair into Pawn Stars last year. They looked just like jeans we wear today. A few minor differences in stitching and fit.

You can tell more modern cameras were used. The old ones where people had to stand frozen for several minutes look different. They always look like frozen figures. These photos look like pictures in my moms family’s 1930’s album.

I know that westerns from the '30’s-'50s probably weren’t completely accurate, but I’m having a hard time seeing why you think these pictures show them to be horribly inaccurate. Here’s the cast of Bonanza. Granted, the details of their costumes were obviously influenced by 1960’s fashion (the lapels and open shirt fronts, for example), but they’re in work pants, boots, long-sleeve shirts, and vests. Here’s John Wayne, and Jimmy Stewart in pretty typical costumes for them, and I don’t see how they would really stick out like a sore thumb in early 1900’s Utah. Maybe the plaid on Stewart is a little out of place, but overall they’re not absurd.

Me too.

look at the California bar photo near the very end. How would you describe those clothes?

I see a lot of differences in the real people and the hollywood photos. The hats for one thing. Several men look like they are wearing white shirts. Bow ties are very common in the real pictures. Suspenders, suit jackets. Not seeing colors makes it hard comparing real life and hollywood.

Someone above mentioned how dirty real Western life was. I get that sense in this photos. Some of the saloon keepers wore white aprons. I think that was to emphasize that they kept themselves clean. All the people in that Resort photo looked clean. That must of been a very nice place for the wealthy.

Moreover, remember also that in many films the leading characters were explicitly not cowboys; rather they were sheriffs and other LEOs, crooks passing through, and so on. Jimmy Stewart wasn’t a cowboy in Destry Rides Again or in Winchester '73. Presumably, IRL, the saloons’ day-to-day trade came more from the townspeople who, especially in the late Victorian era, would tend to be better dressed according to the standards of the time. By contrast, the actual cowboys would often need to ride for miles just to reach the saloon. In the OP’s link, I’d say that until you get down to the picture of Ole Elliot’s, jeans are more noticeable for their absence.

As for Levis, in the 19th century they were really aimed more toward the miners’ trade; the riveted pockets were supposed to be good for carrying ore samples. At the time, the back pockets and center crotch point–where all the seams meet–were also riveted, which sounds less than ideal if you spend most of your day on a horse. According to this article cowboys of the era were more likely to wear sturdy canvas trousers cut generally like slacks of the day.

A big thing the movies get wrong is the hats. A Stetson was expensive, so most cowboys wore something else. It wasn’t until Stetson started mass producing hats that they became the attire of the common cowboy.

ETA: The crotch rivet was ditched for several reasons: the one SoP mentions and the fact that if you are crouched by a campfire for very long, the rivet will spot-weld your balls together!

It probably would have seemed dirty to us because of the infrequency of bathing, which was also true of city life. The white aprons were probably not intended to advertise one’s personal cleanliness, but rather to assure patrons that there was a barrier of sorts between the barkeep and the food and drink he was selling to them.

With regard to fashion generally, it seems that in some of those small towns they made a serious effort to dress well, with full three-piece suits, ties, and so on. I remember reading this in Stuart Lake’s 1931 biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, but I can’t find the specific quotation.

I agree with Alessan. Buffalo Bill (who started running his Wild West show in the 1880’s, when there was still a Wild West) probably did more to influence the look of westerns than what happened in the actual West. I’m reminded of Daniel Boone, one of the earliest American celebrities, who was annoyed in his lifetime about being portrayed wearing a coonskin cap. The first book about Boone, which became an international bestseller while Boone was alive, had illustrations showing him in the coonskin cap, and the image quickly outgrew the reality.

Heh. Those pictures from Bingham, Utah: that town was named for my great great great grandfather Erastus Bingham. Could be my ancestors.

Hell, there were still young cowboys in Los Angeles County, in the 1930s, and not just the Hollywood kind. According to my father whose family move here around then, these guys would come into town on Saturday night to carouse on the south side of town and things could get pretty rowdy. I don’t think, at that late date, they were still riding horses into town, but otherwise they were archetypical cowboys.

Another thing they’d do was go get a bath, a shave, maybe a shampoo, etc. There were bathhouses in those days that existed for the sole purpose of making baths available to those who didn’t have their own tubs, and without any connotation of what the word bathhouse would later come to connote.

I noticed the hats too. In real pictures, you’ll often find the townspeople in the same sorts of hats worn by people in eastern cities–derbies, fedoras, and even cloth caps. Somberos and ten-gallon hats were more practical out on the range. In The Shootist I really liked the way they put Ron Howard’s character–the nineteen year old son of the hotel keeper (Lauren Bacall) in that type of cloth cap more commonly associated with young men in the cities. Given that the movie is supposed to take place in 1901, I thought it was an interesting feature of this transitional era, as when he mentions the “auto-MO-bile” owned by another character.

I remember the 80s movie Rustler’s Rhapsody poking fun at this trope. The good guy (Tom Berringer) always wore the spotless fancy frilly cowboy costumes associated with Roy Rogers, Bonaza, et al. The bad guys OTOH wore dusty spaghetti western outfits with trenchcoats.