By the middle of the 1870s, the term “cowboy” described the young mounted riders driving cattle out of Texas. This term was originally used east of the Rocky Mountains; the preferred term on the other side of the Great Divide was “buckaroo,” coming from the Spanish word for cowboy, vaquero. But this did not last for long. By the early 1880s, bolstered by the mostly mythical image of the “wild west” portrayed in dime novels, the love affair between the general public of North America and Europe and the “cowboy” had begun. Soon the young men involved in British Columbia ranching abandoned the terms “drover” and “buckaroo” and happily accepted the title “cowboy.” With this new title came a gradual acceptance of the “uniform” that went with the image. The cowboy of British Columbia never looked back.

A photograph of Okanagan Native cowboys, Gabriel Paul and Alec Jack. Click to enlarge,
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Okanagan Native cowboys Gabriel Paul and Alec Jack. F20-15 – Courtesy of the Historic O’Keefe Ranch

Cowboy Dress
The most distinctive articles of cowboy apparel were wide-brimmed hats, high-heeled boots, and leather or woolly chaps. All of these were designed for a purpose and, as is often the case with what we wear, they made a fashion statement as well.

In the early 1800s, high leather boots were called “Wellingtons” after the Duke of Wellington, the victor at the Battle of Waterloo. During the American Civil War, all military officers and cavalry wore a “Full Wellington,” a two-piece leather boot. These boots became the standard footwear for all western horsemen. Over the years, the heels grew higher to allow riders to “home” their feet in the stirrups, and the toes became pointed so that they could be easily inserted into the stirrup. By the 1880s, the cowboy boot had become a separate style with stovepipe tops and elaborate stitch patterns on the sides for more support.

The word “chaps” comes from the Spanish chaparreras meaning “leg armour.” The earliest chaps were merely sheets of leather draped over the saddle to protect the wearer from thorns and brush. Eventually the chaps became two long tubes of leather to cover the legs that were joined and belted at the waist. These were called “shotgun chaps” because they resembled the two barrels of a shotgun. In the Northern cattle ranges like British Columbia, chaps were made from the pelts of animals such as Angora goats, deer, or bear with the hair still on to keep the wearer warm in the winter and to shed water in the rain.

The cowboy hat originated with the Mexican vaqueros who often spent the day on horseback in the blazing sun. They soon developed a wide brimmed hat called a sombrero from the Spanish word sombre, which means “shade.” The hat provided just that: it kept the sun off the head and face of the rider and saved him from sunstroke or sunburn. The cowboys of British Columbia adapted the elaborate and heavily decorated Mexican sombrero into a similar wide-brimmed hat. Their design was adapted and perfected by John B. Stetson in Texas and soon spread to all the cattle areas of the west.

Cowboys wore neckerchiefs around their necks to pull up over their mouths when following cattle over dusty trails. Neckerchiefs were also used for warmth in the winter months and, in the coldest weather, could be tied around a rider’s head to protect his ears from freezing. Silk proved to be the best material for neckerchiefs because it kept the dust out more effectively than cotton, and it kept the heat in during the winter. The cowboy’s “glad rag,” as the neckerchief was affectionately called, was an indispensable part of his attire.

Early Cowboy Boot (1890s)

By the early 1880s, the cowboy boot was beginning to emerge as a separate style. The stovepipe (flat) top, inlaid patterns and high heels seen on this boot were distinctive. Note that the entire front of the boot up to the calf was one piece, a design that had all but disappeared by 1900.

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Shot Gun Chaps (1890s)

The earliest “chaps” in British Columbia consisted of two long tubes of leather into which the legs were stuck and joined into a belt at the waist. The way the two legs tapered down to the ankle reminded the drovers of the two barrels of a shotgun, so they called them “shotgun chaps.

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