Taste, Trends and Cowboy Boots

Painting "Herd Quitters"

Have you ever pondered the difference between what you are supposed to like and what you actually do like?  I’m not thinking, here, about the truly important stuff, such as sexual preference (which is almost certainly not a choice), or with whom you fall in love anyway (which is more like compulsion or madness).  This is the more surface stuff, more about still not liking tangerine even when it’s the “in” color (I say it’s orange and I say the hell with it) or (like Ed Wood of long-ago B-movie days) loving Angora shruggies whether they are fashionable or not (something I can’t wear whether I like them or not or whether I think I should like them or not, because Angora itches).

Or, even more simply, what we are taught by our mothers (usually), local style mavens (often), and the media (all too often) to think of as stylish, trendy, fashionable, cool or just in good taste may not be what we, in our heart of hearts, really find pretty, attractive and delightful.  I remember in high school thinking that the pep club uniforms we had (slightly above the knee purple box pleated skirts with German lederhosen-style straps worn over white button-down Oxford shirts and with white tennis shoes) were really good-looking.  I liked the quality of the wool flannel in the skirt, I liked the hidden stitching on the stitched-down portion of the box pleats, I liked the simplicity of the purple and white, the shirts and tennis shoes complementing the skirt.  I thought the tout ensemble of the whole (as a friend’s mother would put it) looked good on me.  And I did not dare say so.  All the comments I ever heard about this uniform were, ahem, uniformly negative.  It was considered clunky, even then (and, yes, this was a long time ago), it was considered dowdy and totally uncool.  Nobody liked it.  So I, in my 16-year-old wisdom, didn’t like it either.  But I really did.

This led to confusion over time, because I learned probably the opposite of what I should have learned.  I learned that I’d better trust other’s taste in preference to my own.  I learned that what I liked was kitschy, ordinary, dowdy (that word again) and that what I was supposed to like was all that was cool, trendy, attractive.  And so I tried to like it.

Black Western cowboy boots on a white background

Black Western cowboy boots on a white background (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For example.  I’ve lived either in the West in small towns or medium cities, Los Angeles or New York City virtually my whole life.  And somewhere along the way, I fell in love with Western-style clothes.  Specifically, such items as cowboy boots, snap-buttoned shirts, and fringed leather jackets.  But for a long, long time I didn’t tell anybody that, because when I was growing up, to be a cowboy or to like such western styles and ways of living was the most totally uncool thing you could do.  As I recall, the cool kids had truly unpleasant appellations for the cowboy kids, to which I will not give any credence by repeating them here.  And oh how I wanted to be a cool kid.  (I wasn’t, because I was an academic nerd, a term that had not been invented yet.  I liked most of my teachers and the challenge of learning stuff.  This is ALWAYS uncool in high school, at least in public high school.)  So I pretended to go along with the contempt (and it was true contempt, growing out of the bottomless pit of insecurity that a teenager lives with every day) for cowboys.

But way inside where I didn’t even look I really liked how they dressed.  And I couldn’t admit it.  Not even to myself.

A few years later, when I lived in Wyoming, where everybody was a cowboy (except for the cowgirls) and that was just background, not even a lifestyle choice (which is a term I don’t think anybody who lives in Wyoming understands or wants to), I went with a girlfriend to Cheyenne Frontier Days, one of the best rodeos going.  And that’s when I first really met up with, watched, and started to understand real working cowboys.  Rodeo cowboys, at least.  For them, wearing jeans bleached practically white with a round white patch in the back pocket where the chewing tobacco rubbed against the material, wearing tight shirts with snaps instead of buttons, and wearing, of course, and most iconically, the hat and the boots, didn’t have anything to do with style, with cool, with any sort of John Travolta post-modern irony.  It was simply the clothes you wore that were most practical for a physical, demanding way of life filled with hard work and not a lot of money.  You wore cowboy boots because if you rode, the pointed toes got your feet in the stirrups quickly without you having to look down and the high heels kept your feet from slipping through the stirrups, so that you wouldn’t be caught and dragged if your horse threw you.  The hat?  Wide brim to keep off the brutal western sun, deep crown to use to water yourself or your horse.  Jeans because they don’t wear out and you don’t have enough money to buy lots of pants.  The tight shirt with snaps?  The tight part is to protect against brush and thorns that would catch on looser material.  I don’t actually have any guesses about the snaps.

But Western wear has always been stylin’, whether it was “in style” or not.  Snaps and complexly designed yokes and fringe and embroidery were a major part of the look of a Western shirt.  And, let’s face it, during the mid-years of last century, Western wear was one of the few ways a man was allowed to express his own taste for color, style, for actual pretty, in what he wore.  And still be the most macho dude around.

So, here were Pat (my friend) and I, wandering around “backstage” at Cheyenne Frontier Days.  And I mostly noticed that people who are very comfortable in their skins, in their choices, look like they belong in their cowboy clothes.  This is something that can be extended, of course, to any style of clothing.  Queen Elizabeth II looks quite comfortable in satin encrusted with embroidery and jewels, wearing her orders and sashes and necklaces and tiaras and crowns.  For her, it’s not a costume, it’s not “cool”.  It’s just her uniform for a certain part of her working life.  I also noticed that the real working cowboys, whether their work is ranching or rodeo, look so utterly, droolingly delicious in their jeans and boots and snap-buttoned shirts and hats that a mere female has a real hard time remembering that these men are not icons, they’re human beings, with undoubtedly human problems.  I’m not suggesting that a girl shouldn’t get interested in a cowboy (or vice versa), but somewhere between “they never say a word and they’re always hurt” and “my heroes have always been cowboys”, it’s probably best to find the cowboy who interests you more for his thoughts, his humor and his liking of you than because he can wear the hell out of a pair of tight jeans.  Just sayin’.

But they sure are fun to look at.

However, that congruence between what I really liked, what my taste genuinely was, and what was out there to like, what was okay to like, didn’t survive the end of the rodeo season.  For one thing, I moved away from Wyoming.  For another, it still wasn’t cool in Colorado to like cowboys.  Oh well.  Life went on.

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Photo taken at 61st...

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Photo taken at 61st Academy Awards 3/29/89 - Governor's Permission granted to copy, publish or post but please credit "photo by Alan Light" if you can (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And eventually I moved to Los Angeles.  LA is not part of the West, just so you know.  It may have been once, when Roy Rogers lived in the San Fernando Valley, but in the eighties and nineties when I lived there, LA was just too cool and trendy, too center-of-the-world, to give house room to the real life of the West.  But even there, there came around, as it does every few years in LA and New York City (but apparently nowhere else except every place in Texas), a fad for the cowboy look.  Oh, not for being a cowboy, just for looking like one, in a sort of deconstructed way.  And people who always seem to know what the next big thing is would rent a vacant lot or a parking lot and put thousands of pairs of used cowboy jeans or Western shirts and/or thousands of pairs of used cowboy boots out and people would buy them and buy them and buy them.  I did too.  I got a pair of black lizard Frye boots with really high heels and really pointed toes for some impossibly small amount of money and loved them to pieces, even if they were a bit narrow for my fat little baby feet.  I’m still mad at myself for getting rid of them.  One of the reasons those vacant lots filled with used boots was even possible is that you can’t kill a good pair of Frye boots no matter what you do to them, they’ll outlast you (or at least your ability to walk in boots with really pointy toes and really high heels).

Of course, I wore them the trendy, LA way, NOT with jeans, snap-buttoned shirts and fringe, but with long swirly skirts that were in style and so, of course, not Western.  And, heavens above, not with a cowboy hat.  After all, you had to have some standards.  And the cognitive dissonance went on.  Because I really liked those cowboy boots and what I wanted in my hidden self was to wear them right, with a fringed leather skirt or with chaps and jeans, and (even though I get the worst hat head you ever saw) with a cowboy hat.  And no matter how completely un-trendy it was (and it was), I wanted a fringed leather jacket and turquoise jewelry (none of which I could afford).  I really wanted them.  And I kept quiet about it, because just saying it out loud would brand me as some kind of nerd, geek or whatnot, with no style at all.

Finally I moved back here to the West.  Oh, not for that reason.  And not without a very large detour to New York City where I discovered that while what’s in style rules on 5th Avenue, you can wear what you want and like what you want in the Village (at least, you can so long as it’s black).  Which helped me, finally, realize that it was okay, it really was, for me to like things (cats, Georgette Heyer novels, Sherlock Holmes, Frye boots, fringed leather jackets, Tex-Mex food, Arts and Crafts furniture, Victoriana, Fiestaware, and the American West) because I liked them.  Whether somebody else did, whether it was cool or trendy, mattered not in the slightest.

I started buying turquoise jewelry.  Not the really good stuff, I still can’t afford it, but I have a couple of pieces I wear almost all the time.  I have a fringed, embroidered, suede Western jacket.  I just bought a pair of cowboy style ankle boots with conchos on them (I can hardly wait to wear them with the new jeans four sizes smaller than I’ve worn for years).  I go to the Rooftop Rodeo here in town.  And I’m starting to not care whether or not the Western-style pieces I’m looking at (rugs, cushions, even furniture) are cool or trendy anywhere but in my mind and heart.

Even more, I’m realizing that it’s okay for me not to like stuff that iscool or trendy.  No more apologies that I’m just not a minimalist when somebody tells me that the best furniture is Mies van der Rohe.  I know who he is, his stuff is lean and gorgeous and simple, and I couldn’t live with it for a minute.  I’m finally learning that stating for the record that I don’t like modern furniture is not going to get me drummed out of the human race, it’ll just keep me from being invited to a house where there wouldn’t be a comfortable place to sit anyway.  So now I can admit out loud, darn it, that I really liked those high school pep club uniforms and that I don’t care if tangerine is this year’s best color, because it’s orange and I hate orange and always did.

"The Cow Boy"

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