The Denver Post - Collaring a Western Classic
Collaring a Western classic
The scion of a longtime Denver ranch-wear family charts the colorful history of the cowboy shirt
From left, at Rockmount’s LoDo headquarters, now a retail store as well as offices, are the three generations of the Weil family: Steven E., Jack A. and Jack B
The grandson of Rockmount Ranch Wear founder Jack A. Weil, and son of its vice president, Jack B. Weil, Steven E. Weil grew up living, breathing and wearing his family's Western wear.
At 18 months he modeled a tiny gingham snap-front shirt and white cowboy boots. In high school, he raided his grandfather's closet for cool clothes to wear.
Weil prizes vintage styles, their history and the iconic figures who sported Rockmount: Elvis Presley. Ronald Reagan. Robert Redford. Bruce Springsteen.
"In fashion there are few classics that have remained as popular over such a long time as Western shirts," says Weil, author of "Western Shirts: A Classic American Fashion," just published by Gibbs Smith of Salt Lake City ($39.95).
His 103-year-old grandfather doesn't understand all the fuss. He remembers when shirts sold for $45 a dozen and can't fathom why someone would spend $100 for an old one.
In the book, Steven describes displaying some Rockmount classics after joining the family business in 1981 after his graduation from Tulane University in New Orleans.
"My desire to preserve history by hanging Papa Jack's shirts in our lobby museum ran counter to his desire to stay warm; on cold Colorado winter days, he would take my exhibits home to wear," Weil writes. "For him they were meant to be worn; for me, to preserve."
Co-written with G. Daniel DeWeese, the book chronicles the cowboy shirt's rise, fall and renewed popularity in fashion circles, and documents the companies that made Western shirts. Denverites will remember names such as Miller and Karman (now Roper), but there were other local companies, including Prior, Hillbilly Westerns and Ranch-Man Westernwear.
For the connoisseur, the tome deconstructs the garment's elements, describing yokes, collars, cuffs and ornamentation; and also pictured are 240 labels that will help collectors determine the age and authenticity of a shirt.
"The last thing we wanted was for it to be a vanity piece on Rockmount. We wanted it to be a scholarly study," Weil says during an interview in the company's LoDo headquarters.
Recently renovated with help from a State Historical Fund grant, the 1909 Fisher & Fisher building at 1626 Wazee St. features its original fir flooring; the tin ceiling has been antiqued to burnished gold; and a full assortment of Rockmount Ranch Wear merchandise is displayed on antiques and new steel fixtures in the front room. Offices were moved to the side and back rooms, which are still being renovated.
Many of the shirts for sale are reproductions of styles from Rockmount's early days, including the floral embroidered style featured on the book's cover. It was designed in the 1950s by Jack B., who often drew a design on a shirt in chalk and then had the pattern embroidered to see how it looked.
Weil attributes some of the renewed interest in vintage styles to the popularity of Western shirts in countries such as Japan and Australia.
Stateside, Gap and Diesel are among the companies that have put Western shirts in their lines in recent seasons, and the snug fit appeals to a new generation.
"When Western fashion came into being it was mainly popular with young, slim men," Weil writes. "...Now slim-fit, retro-Western is appealing to young men again."
The early days
Western wear was popularized by early rodeo cowboys and actors who wore flashy costumes made by Hollywood tailors. Novels romanticized the West, as did traveling shows, thus building an appetite among Americans to experience it for themselves. Soon both working cowboys and the public wanted those colorful shirts, fancy hats, dungarees and boots.
"While the movies captured the public's imagination, dude ranches helped facilitate the spread of Western fashion after World War II," Weil writes, noting that the industry grew steadily from the 1930s to the 1970s.
Then "Urban Cowboy" almost killed it. When the movie starring John Travolta came out in 1978, the industry got a big boost. But many companies rushed to get into the business and overloaded it; by 1981, the boom became a bust.
When the fad was over, "the core Western market reacted against flamboyant Western styling," Weil writes, and conservative looks came back into play. The trend continued until 2003, when the bulk of Western brands went retro.
The one good thing to come out of the "Urban Cowboy" craze was that Western style reached the mass market for the first time. Weil gives Ralph Lauren credit for popularizing it.
But Weil has a gripe with the famous designer stemming from a remark Lauren made to Vanity Fair in an interview published in 1998. "He made the dubious claim of having reinvented Western because, he said, on a (1977) trip to Denver he could not find a real Western shirt," Weil writes, adding that the comments were "patently wrong, obviously self-serving, and offensive to many in the Western apparel industry."
(At the time, there were more than 30 Western wear retailers listed in the phone book, according to Weil.)
Weil misunderstood Lauren's remarks, says Nancy Murray, senior vice president for public relations at Ralph Lauren. The designer was on a quest for a Western shirt with original styling.
Lauren, she says, "went to four or five stores looking for a 100 percent cotton shirt with a shorter collar, but what he found were the 1970s versions, which were in a polyester blend and had longer collars."
Weil acknowledges that what Lauren did "turned out to be a gift ... mainstream Americana - and the rest of the world - was introduced to a look, which, had it been in a traditional Western store, they would never have bought," he writes.
Weil realizes that he sometimes sings the praises of Western wear at his own peril. His designs have been copied repeatedly by other manufacturers, and he recently rushed several vintage Rockmount styles into production before the book was printed to keep knockoff artists from beating him to it.
Western-shirt popularity is cyclical, like everything else in fashion, but for now, he's happy the vintage styles he discovered as a teen are finding a new audience.
"They're all selling," he says, gesturing to the floor filled with colorful shirts and silk scarves. "In this day and age, you can't afford to produce bad inventory."
Staff writer Suzanne S. Brown can be reached at 303-820-1697 or firstname.lastname@example.org .