Friday 12 June 2015

The Stetson And Other Signs That You Are In The Country

I’m outside the twin-domed front of the Gaiety cinema on City Road.  I’ve got a mackintosh  over my back like a western cape and a stick for a gun shoved inside my elastic s-buckle belt.  Near as I can get to a fifties cowboy.  I’ve got friends with me, a whole gang of them.  It’s Saturday mid-day and we’ve just emerged from a few hours of bliss watching episodes of Flash Gordon, Laurel and Hardy and a full B-movie western.   Today it was Cody of the Pony express in his buckskin jacket riding the range and vanquishing all foes with a brace of six-shooters.  The mail, even out there in the arrow-filled desert wilds,  just had to get through.

Back at Peter Hughes’ house the only television in the entire district sat like a religious relic.  It was  encased in walnut and revered by all.  Before it we clustered.  On the black and white 405-line screen Hopalong flickered.  Black Stetson, silver studded belt.  There were others too.  Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, unexpectedly breaking into Back in the Saddle Again  while wearing an embroidered shirt with smiling mouth pockets and mother of pearl buttons.  Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys, in a Stetson and red bandana, galloping Trigger to the tune of Happy Trails or Cool Water.   There was something here, subliminally, about gun smoke and western songs, about the rhythm of horses hoofs and the thrumming of guitars, about Stetsons and country music. 

Western dress, de rigueur in the actual west, rarely surfaced in British fashion.  There were moments when cowboy boots, in particular cowboy boots for women, would be acceptable, even sexily racy.  For a time they were a feature on London’s Kings Road.  But these moments were not many.  Elements of western dress, in particular the bolo or shoe-string tie, moved as if by osmosis into the dress of teddy boys.  There were also times when fringes hanging down from the arms of your massively round-collared leather jacket in the hippie seventies recalled the kind of thing Indians habitually wore, or so the films said.  But if you wanted to see what cowboys dressed in then you needed to visit the places where they roamed.

The Stetson hat, which would make you look a little like Crocodile Dundee if you wore one on the streets of New York is common throughout the south.  It’s the big signal of western wear, this large, broad-brimmed,  and certainly not inexpensive headpiece.   Once thought to have been the hat of choice throughout the west during its wilder days, study of old photographs shows this to be entirely untrue.  If you were on the frontier as a pioneer in the first part of the nineteenth century then you were far more likely to be seen wearing a black derby bowler hat of the kind regularly seen on the streets of London than you were some wide-brimmed sombrero.  Despite Frederick Remmington, populariser of the image of the wild west in paintings and a whole host of Hollywood films, the Stetson did not make an appearance until around 1870.  

Its creator, John Batterson Stetson, himself the son of a hat maker, came up with the design for the first “boss of the plains” hat in 1865.  This had a wide brim to keep off the rain and sun, a high crown to hold in a pocket of insulating air and could, at a push, be used to carry water.  They were great for fanning recalcitrant trail side camp fires.  A version was adopted by the US Cavalry and the hat style took off right across the whole cowboy west. 

Sharp shooters adopted it.  So did sheriffs and just about everybody else with business attended to from the back of a horse.  When the movies finally arrived they depicted a western population where the Stetson, in both its black and its white incarnation,  was what you had on your head.  Some stars adopted wilder styles, innovating with the super-large ten gallon version, fine on celluloid, impractical on the plains.  There’s a photo out there of Tom Mix wearing one that’s taller than his face.  There’s another showing Gene Autry plus police escort leaving the Cardiff Capitol Cinema in 1939.  He has on his head a white ten gallon.  He looks more of a cowpoke than Cowboy Copas.  Copas stuck to a flat topped Stetson.  But he did go for enormously wide brims.

So, too, did most of the other singers in the emerging country and western style of music.  Didn’t matter if you were a steel guitar player with a western swing band, a mainstream Nashville country singer in the style of  Eddy Arnold, an outlaw like Waylon, a man in black or a Dwight Yokham Americana purveyor you wore a hat.  Alan Jackson, George Straight, Clint Black, Brad Paisley, Garth Brooks and other mainline 80s and 90s singers all did and became known as hat acts.  Man, guitar, and Stetson.  The style of dress persists.  

Turning the supermarket aisle corner in Food City in 2014 Dandridge, Tennessee, a sleepy tiny town on the edges of Douglas Lake, I bump into an oldster coming the other way.  He’s pushing a trolley loaded with pensioners’ goods – cheap meat cuts, packets of grits, large cans of beans.  He’s wearing cowboy boots, western jeans, a shirt with smiling pockets and black piping.  On his head he has a white Stetson hat. 

Country music, or at least its stage and TV appearance component, was the driver behind much of present-day western apparel.  Right across America there are stores that specialise in retailing hats, massively expensive tooled leather cowboy boots, embroidered  shirts, ranch buckle belts, string ties and the rest of the regalia.

The original cowboys dressed as they did for practical reasons.  Their hats kept off the sun.  They were tied to their chins with strips of leather or ripped-off hat bands.  Their brims were decorated with Indian beads, woven horsehair or rattlesnake hides.  Their boots could slide easily into the stirrup.  The high Cuban heel prevented them from slipping out.  The tall laceless style of the boot protected the leg.   Shorter versions with cut-down walking heels came later. 

The Cowboy’s  denim shirts, derived from the sort worn by Confederate soldiers, lasted well in a difficult climate.  They wore leather chaps to keep off the cactus spines or woollen ones as a hedge against cold wind.  Round their neck they wore a bandana to stave off dust.    

Early cinema  cowboys and country singers took the style and elaborated it.  Boots became increasingly ostentatious and were manufactured from alligator and rattlesnake skin or coloured highly decorated leather.  Shirts were tailored with contrasting yokes often outlined in piping and began to be embroidered with cattle insignia, stars and entwining roses.  Colour, which the real cowboys avoided for fear it might spook the cattle, rolled like a rash of rainbows.    Stripes, plaids, garish checks, bright greens, blues  and reds.  John Wayne, as the Ringo Kid in the film Stagecoach (1939),  wore a bib fronted Western shirt in a style adapted from those worn in the Civil War.  Casey Tibbs, the bronco rider, did the same.  In 1938 Denver shirt maker Jack A Weil replaced standard buttons with a  metal ring gripper snap made by Scovill of Connecticut.  The C&W shirt popper button.  The style caught on.

For many outside country music’s heartlands western apparel meant nothing until the advent of country rock and the arrival of The Byrd’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968) and, in particular, the Flying Burrito Brothers’ album,  Gilded Palace of Sin (1969).  Here, on the album cover of the Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman show stopper, the band sport lavishly embroidered Nudie suits.  These show roses intertwined with  marijuana leaves which added a whole new dimension to the style of alt-country that this album was to launch.  There might not have been an immediate rush to appear on the streets of cities across the world dressed as country stars but the style of dress did become socially more acceptable.  Just a little. 

Today western dress does duty in many parts of America’s Southern States  as formal wear.  You dress in your alligator boots and your bolo tie to worship at church, sell insurance, go for a job interview, attend a funeral.   The style is so common no one notices. 

I track the outfit I’m going to buy down in a store in Pigeon Forge.  Boots, shirt, jacket.  There’s a range of footwear that runs two entire fifty meter walls.  Boots in just about every colour and style possible so long as they’re cowboy.  Levi jeans, tooled leather belts with elaborate decorated silver buckles.  Chaps seem to be missing which is understandable.  Urban cowboys do not look cool turning up wearing what look like giant fleece waders on their lower limbs.  

I try on a hat, a black wide-brimmed outlaw headpiece with a deep red hatband of the kind I imagine law breakers might sport in their desert hideaways in New Mexico.  It fits but I look ridiculous, even here in the heartland.   A Welsh-accented cowpoke with a face that lacks both beard and weather-beaten gnarls.  How it would be walking down St Mary Street back home I just can’t imagine.    I settle for a shirt with green and red roses intertwining across the yoke and those famous metal popper buttons.  It’s heavy, tailored,  and perfect for strolling down Nashville’s Broadway.  I love it.  It’s on a hanger now in the back bedroom wardrobe.  Preserved in a plastic bag.  Never worn it once. 

This is an edited slice taken from the forthcoming Peter Finch: The Roots Of Rock From Cardiff To Mississippi And Back, due for publication from Seren Books in the autumn of 2015.

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