The Design Observer Group - The Inventor of the Cowboy Shirt

Posted 09.30.08

The Inventor of the Cowboy Shirt

Adam Harrison Levy

Jack A. Weil. Photo by Rick Wilking, 2006

A few years ago, I found myself lost inside a shopping mall with the man who, in 1946, invented the snap-buttoned cowboy shirt. Jack A. Weil, better known as Jack A, was one hundred and one years old and he was not happy. He was, in fact, highly annoyed. We had wandered into the shirt section of Foley’s Department store in Denver. He was holding up a red-and-blue-striped Tommy Hilfiger. He couldn’t get over the fact that clothes were made anywhere else but in the good 'ol USA. "Call me an isolationist, call me small-minded but why do people buy shirts made in..." — Jack A looked at the label — "Sri Lanka!"

Jack A, along with his son, Jack B, who was then in his seventies, ran Rockmount Ranch Wear, a manufacturer of classic western shirts, Stetsons and bolo ties. (Rockmont shirts have been worn by Clark Gable in The Misfits, by Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain and by countless other cowboys, both real and imagined in between.) The three of us were trying to find a place to eat. But because Jack B refused to park in the parking garage and spend an extra five dollars, Jack A couldn’t find his way to his usual lunch spot, Spinnakers Restaurant. Jack A liked routine. He still opened the Rockmount shop every morning at 8:00am just as he did back in the 1940s, when he was an eager ex-hat salesman newly arrived in Colorado from Indiana.

Clark Gable, wearing a Rockmount shirt, with the cast of The Misfits

Realizing just how lost we were, Jack A took command of the situation. He returned the Hilfiger to its place on the rack. "Its Spinnakers or bust," he said firmly. "I'm not eating anywhere else.” He adjusted his Stetson and set off across the crowded shop floor. Jack B and I followed along like ducklings. Jack A had a walnut face: wizened and tough, with deep folds of skin around his mouth. Even at his age he was agile and directed. 

Eventually we found Spinnakers and slumped into seats at a table by the window. While we were waiting for a waiter to appear, I asked Jack A about the natty sand-colored cowboy shirt he was wearing. It had opalescent snap buttons and a spread collar and it fit him perfectly. "Oh, this?" he said with a self-deprecating smile, "I only wear the shirts I like — which also happen to be the ones we make. They exemplify a type of life, a way of living in the west." He studied me critically. "Not only that," he added with a grin, "They don't cost me anything!"

Back in the 1940s, Jack A had realized that the cowboy shirt could be something more than a simple product. The idea behind the cowboy shirt, he said, was to reflect the flamboyance of the rodeo riders, their reckless bravado. His job was to translate those qualities into the language of pattern and cut: shaped cuffs, bold yokes, tapered waists, and vibrant colors. "In those days, when cowboys rode into town they wore simple chamois shirts and denim Levis. They had two or three months pay in their pocket to raise hell with and get drunk and I got the idea that they'd buy a few fancy shirts while they were at it." His innovation, in other words, was to sell back to the cowboy the very idea of what their life was all about.

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain wearing Rockmount shirts

From the start he realized that an industry couldn't be built solely on the boom-and-bust spending cycles of the then dwindling cowboy. He had to attract other customers, the type of people who were turning up in Denver just after the war to attend Elks Conventions or go to the rodeo. "I had to appeal to a public who considered the western way of life truly American, and those were people who mostly didn't live out here. Easterners ate this stuff up." Having come from Indiana himself at a time when "the west was still about romance," he viscerally understood this market. He was selling his products to people just like himself.

Jack A had spent his life on the hunt for design ideas that were different than the conventional. Before the war, while visiting San Francisco, he had noticed that a Chinese tailor was making handmade shirts with snaps on them instead of buttons. He was impressed by the idea. He knew enough about the technology of snaps to see that the tailor hadn't got it quite right; he was using glove snaps that wouldn't hold up to the stresses and strains that a shirt undergoes. But the idea intrigued him; it wouldn't let him sleep at night. While the war raged in Europe, and the clothing factories were restricted to military production, Jack quietly nurtured the concept of putting a snap on the cowboy shirt.

Rockmount western shirt with diamond snaps and sawtooth pockets

In 1946, when the war was over, he traveled by train to the swanky offices of the Scovill Manufacturing Company — located in New York City's Chrysler Building. Scovill made the highest quality industrial snaps in America. Jack was seen by a junior sales rep in a double breasted suit who told him point blank that it simply wasn't feasible to put a Scovill snap on something as flimsy as a shirt.

The rep was showing him the door when Jack realized that he had to do something dramatic in order to meet a higher-up, someone with more clout, otherwise the trip would be a wash out. So in the loudest voice he could muster he shouted, "If I bought these Scovill snaps and paid for them and ate them like cereal then its nobody's goddamn business but my own." A boss quickly emerged from an office to see what the commotion was all about. Jack A seized his chance and pitched the idea. Ten minutes later the two of them were sitting down across a desk working out the design applications. Jack didn't blame the underling. "It's not always easy to get those corporate guys to step out of the mainstream.”

While Jack A had been telling this story to me, Jack B had been busy folding his paper napkin into crude origami. He wore a coral-red, snap-buttoned shirt and centerline-pressed blue jeans, which were tipped off by a pair of pointy calfskin cowboy boots. A thick handlebar moustache counterbalanced his thinning hair. He seemed testy. "Its been fun being part of this mystique," he said when his father had finished talking, "but I've never really thought a whole lot about this, what we've done. We just go to work everyday. I don't take it seriously."

Our food arrived. Jack B had ordered a rare T-bone sirloin steak. When he lanced his meat and the blood didn't run freely, he sent it back. He made quite a show of it, called the maître d' over, and raised his voice. The other diners turned around in their seats. "I'm a picky feller when it comes to eating," he said when they took his plate away. "I'm the king of complaints." His showmanship successfully upstaged his father; Jack A nibbled on his BLT and seemed to shrink.

"You know that my father practically invented the bolo tie, right?" said Jack B, who was now engorged from his attention-getting outburst. He was pointing at his father's sternum. Hanging from Jack A's neck was a dazzling bolo made from turquoise and silver. A bolo is a braided leather lariat that loops under a shirt's collar like a tie and is held in place at the neck by a decorative buckle. The lariat had existed previously; it was Jack A who had the idea of putting the fancy decorative buckle (which drew on Native American designs) on the front. This was a characteristic Jack A masterstroke: by imaginatively combining two pre-existing forms he had come up with something new. 

Jack A. Weil, wearing a bolo tie. Photo by David Zalubowski

Jack A's variation of the bolo has become the de rigeur piece of clothing for every wannabe cowboy. You see them on insurance salesmen in Nebraska, on hip Hollywood producers drinking at the Chateau Marmont, and even on Presidential hopefuls when they are out on the stump in the rural west. But you can also spot them on real, honest-to-god ranchers when they are in town visiting the bank or meeting friends for coffee. Out west, a bolo tie around your neck means that you're not a poor immigrant field worker but neither are you an uptight city suit. It signifies down-home authenticity.

This is exactly what Jack A had hoped for when he put a silver buckle on the bolo lariat. He had a theory about it. "The bolo is a lot less formal than the conventional European silk necktie. Also, you can wear it with your shirt collars open which makes things more comfortable for a working man.” He had taken the European men's tie, a symbol of wealth, privilege and class authority and had loosened it up, democratized it. Life in Colorado, he felt, was less constrained than life back east or in the Old World and what you wore around your neck should reflect this new culture.

Manufacturing those early bolos was a craft-intensive undertaking. Special pliers, used by telephone linemen, were used to bend the silver tips around the lariat. It took training and persistence. As a result, for many years Rockmount produced only two types of bolo ties. ("Bolo" is actually a misnomer. Jack A wanted to call it the "bola" but he didn't write the "a" clearly enough on the manufacturing order one day. Remarkably, when westerners pronounce "bolo" it comes out sounding like "bola.") When Jack B assumed some of the design responsibilities from his father in the mid 1970s, he felt it was crucial to expand their output. "I've styled the bolo line for over twenty five years," Jack B boasted to me as he tucked into his meat, "and now we have over 300 styles. You know those bolos with dried scorpions on them? Those are mine, along with all the ones with buffalo nickels and cowboy boots, pigs asses and Stetson hats. Oh yeah, its been a lot of fun."

If Jack A was a western wear visionary, then Jack B was Rockmount's popularizer. He never let the issue of taste get in his way. As a result, he successfully saw the company through times when cowboy culture was on the wane and disco culture dominated. He steered a profitable path through glam rock and rhinestones. His cowboy shirt designs embraced stripes and tie-dye, stonewashed denim and appliqué. If Jack A's designs were classic and manly and simple — think of a lone horseman on a cattle-drive in Montana — then Jack B's aesthetic was flashier and trashier and more prone to rapid change — think square dancing in Reno on a Saturday night.

When lunch was over, we got back into Jack B's car. He was driving a midnight black Cadillac Seville with white-wall tires and all black leather interior. We cruised down Colorado Boulevard at 40 mph. Jack B tooted his horn at people on the street and they waved back familiarly. Jack A even touched his Stetson once or twice in a graceful western salute. They were minor Denver royalty.

I offhandedly asked Jack A if any of the other ready-to-wear Western clothiers were also Jewish, like himself. He pushed his hat back up on his head and astonished me by rattling off a list: Karman, H Bar C, Miller Western Wear and, at one point, Stetson. And of course there was Levi-Strauss. "I think Jews were a part of the revolution in western apparel because it was suited to independent thinking people," Jack said. "Our history shaped us."

Tru-West, the Rockmount Ranch Wear logo

We came to a stop in front of a rectangular five-story, red-brick building. It was plain and handsome and functional looking. The large display windows were artfully filled with leather saddles and cowboy boots, Stetson hats and gleaming silver spurs. Jack B switched off the engine. I noticed to my surprise that he was livid, with veins branching across his forehead. "I've never had any desire to be part of that — people who push being part of a so-called minority." He got out of the car and shut the door firmly. "Anyway," he said leaning in through the window, "I'm a Unitarian."

Jack B sauntered away from the car, leaving me with Jack A as he slowly extricated himself from the back seat. We walked slowly towards the doors of Rockmount. "I don't wear my feelings or my religion or my beliefs on my shoulder" he said to me. We climbed the stairs. "The Jews who came out here wanted to fit in, wanted to be Westerners. They had come to this country to be Americans. They didn't come to this country to be Jewish. It shouldn't conflict. One is a religion and the other is a way of life, a physical, daily life." He placed a hand on the door. "Now let me show you around."

I followed Jack A into the store. Lined up along one wall hung an impressive array of Rockmount shirts, mounted behind Plexiglas. "This is just like the shirt that Paul Newman wore in the movie Hud," he said. "See those diamond-shaped snaps? And look at that hand stitching." He ran a trembling finger over the Plexiglas, as if he was explaining an exhibit in a museum. "Can't get people to do that kind of detail work anymore." He then ducked into a chaotic room, one half of which was filled with hundreds of cowboy hats hanging from pegs.

I pointed to a photograph propped up on a counter and which was surrounded by a tumble of bolos, cowboy hats and kerchiefs. "Oh, that's Tony Curtis. He was in Denver and was driving by and saw the lariats and horns and hats in the window. He came in and we gave him a cowboy hat and then took him out to lunch. That's us at lunch with Tony Curtis. He had the time of his life."

Jack A suddenly seemed extremely tired. In his presence, it was easy to forget his immense age. We walked slowly to his office, which was in the rear of the store. A large desk commanded the space. As he lowered himself into his chair his head sunk behind an outcropping of paper. "This is not a good commentary on a successful businessman,” he said wryly as he eyed the mound.

Jack Arnold Weil died in his home in Denver last August. He had outlived Jack B by nearly seven months. He was 107 years old.

Adam Levy is a filmmaker and writer. He recently produced "Selling the Sixties," a BBC documentary about consumerism, advertising and culture of the early 1960s.

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