Iconic American Fashion - The Original Western Shirt is Still Going Strong
By Larry Olmsted
Apr 25, 2019
“The West is not a place, it’s a state of mind,” said “Papa Jack,” born Jack A. Weil, the founder of Rockmount Ranch Wear Manufacturing Company. Papa Jack launched his clothing company in 1946 and would go on to become the world’s oldest CEO, working full time until age 107.
That in and if itself is an amazing feat, but he was better known for inventing the snap button Western shirt. To most people this is the only kind of Western shirt, and today every brand uses them. But the original is still going strong, as I discovered on a recent visit to Denver when I walked into their historic flagship store Downtown. It’s awesome, and it’s their only store, but Rockmount is also sold at retailers nationwide (and on their comprehensive website). Today it’s a fourth-generation family run manufacturer of apparel, hats and accessories carried in about 1,000 stores from Santa Fe to Tokyo. But it’s well worth visiting the Denver shop if your travels take you to the Mile High City.
Rockmount is to Western wear what Ferrari is to sports cars, or Prada to handbags, or Rolex to watches - except it’s not particularly expensive. But it is really cool and has tradition on its side - the signature model with diamond shaped snaps is the longest continuously made shirt in the U.S., and like Fonzie’s leather jacket, Rockmount is displayed in the Smithsonian. In an era of increasingly globalized retail sameness, with boring mirror images of the same cookie cutter stores from Vegas to Dubai to Hong Kong, it’s becoming harder and harder to find truly unique shopping while traveling. Just like great restaurants or museums, this is something I seek out on the road, and when I find a notable exception, I want to share with readers.
I previously wrote here at Forbes about another great one-of-a-kind store that lets you free your inner cowboy, Heritage Boots in Austin, Texas. Heritage reimagines and recreates retro classic western boot designs from decades past and makes them by hand in very attractive, high quality new versions. You can wait months and spend much more having custom-made boots, but I’d argue that these are the best off-the-shelf cowboy boots you can buy, anywhere. I’ve bought several. Like Heritage Boots, Denver’s Rockmount store is really unique and special, as special as they come, and it is hard to walk in and leave without buying something. I certainly could not, and every time I wear the shirt I bought on my first visit, I am transported to a Western state of mind, just as the founder predicted.
Equally as rich as Rockmount’s fashion history is its legacy of popularity with stars, celebrities and politicians. Real life cowboys love them, and so do Hollywood cowboys like Robert Redford, Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner, Sylvester Stallone - even Cray Grant and Bing Crosby wore Rockmount. So did the cowboy President, Ronald Reagan, and potential future President (and former Denver Mayor and Colorado Governor) John Hickenlooper. Musicians love Rockmount no matter what genre they work in, from the obvious country (Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Garth Brooks) to metal (Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister) to folk (Bob Dylan) to rock (Bruce Springsteen, Slash, Don Henley, Elton John, Eric Clapton), to those harder to pigeonhole (Kid Rock, Sammy Davis Jr, and the grateful Dead’s Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia). Rock royalty wears them (Sir Paul McCartney) as does 007 (Pierce Brosnan) and even Captain Kirk (William Shatner). Burt Reynolds wore them when he was on TV’s Gunsmoke, and Chuck Norris made Rockmount the uniform shirt of Walker Texas Ranger. Women’s models have been chosen by Bonnie Raitt, Tanya Tucker, June Carter Cash, Olivia Newton John, supermodel Chrissy Teigen and Olympic Gold Medalist Michelle Kwan.
They transcend geography and industry, and the bottom line is that if Rockmount’s style has proven timeless enough for folks like Elvis and Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, it’s probably good for you. Along with legendary names Levi and Pendleton, Rockmount is one of the three oldest U.S. clothing manufacturers, and it is still all made right here in this country.
Papa Jack was ahead of his time in more ways than one. The 1946 Rockmount flagship store occupies a historic landmark built in 1909 in Denver ‘s LoDo (lower downtown) and was the last surviving early business in a neighborhood that saw a massive decline. But today it is the city’s hottest location, near Coors Field and the spectacularly revitalized Union Station. It has a great location, vast selection, and also features a museum of vintage Rockmount and memorabilia.
Just writing this story makes me want to buy another shirt, and I just might, because in general, all the products are values and a lot of bang for the buck, especially considering the domestic manufacturing. Classic shirt designs start as low as $74 for men, while the fancier embroidered ones mostly run around $100. They have a full slate of women’s styles, kids’ styles, very reasonably priced western hats, and tons of cool accessories, from belts and gloves to bandanas, ties, even flasks.