Wild Country:
Fashion's Fixation with
Neo-Western Aesthetics

Examining the Novelty and Reality
of the New Frontier

  • Text: Rina Nkulu

Arizona heat is heavy. It straight-up smothers you as long as you’re in the sun’s unavoidable sights. On a myriad of postcards where the punchline goes “it’s a dry heat!”, goofy, sun-bleached skeletons recline against cacti, grinning. They’re drawn like cowboys, mostly, in bandanas and Stetsons and boots with spurs. Sometimes they wear sombreros. A vulture might be circling overhead. Dust is as inescapable as the heat; I worry about it caking into my lungs. The frontier myth necessitates a landscape that is hostile and dotted with harsh realities, and a summer in Arizona makes it easy to believe.

Where have all the cowboys gone? The answer is everywhere. The American frontier officially “closed” in 1890 but the myth persists; Civil War uniforms evolved into those of the Wild West and its canyons, valleys, and mesas, trickling eventually down into pop culture where they remain evergreen grist for the cyclical trend mill. “Festival fashion” is 1970s hippie-cowboy gear for play, not work, and for one weekend only in the Coachella Valley. The American Southwest keeps showing up on the runway– continuing from last season’s rampant “outlaw” motifs, Vetements Spring/Summer 2019 collection featured shoulder-padded prairie dresses with cowboy boots. Études was rife with loose-fitting paisley and fringe. We were met with sandy earth tones at Acne. Vanity Fair’s September cover story, shot by Collier Schorr, sees Michelle Williams in Wrangler’s, a bolo, and a cowboy hat. Some element of the western has always been pre-apocalyptic, all dust and silence and sinking feelings in chests, often in accordance with the imperial brand of optimism in historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 Frontier Thesis. Per Turner, native territory in the West becomes fabled “free land,” the violent pursuit of which becomes the founding myth of “American development.” The Wild West has a uniform and it is grotesquely all-American–if you’re not dressed for the end of one world, you might be dressed for the end of another. Always for the weather, either way.

Last September, movie-set cowboys began showing up on the runway, outfitted properly for the scale of the frontier myth. Raf Simons’ second collection at Calvin Klein was about “American horror and American beauty,” its show notes speaking of inspiration derived from “the dream factory of Hollywood and its depictions of both an American nightmare and the all-powerful American dream.” No better outfit for American dreams and nightmares than that of an American settler: color-block western shirts and trousers with a dull sheen to them, Warhol’s electric chairs printed in black and pink, over and over again on white denim. Black trousers with trim, after Mexican mariachis’ embroidered traje de charro. For Fall/Winter 2018, the symbols were recast with care, outfitted in glowing reflective safety stripes and knit balaclavas. The western shirt endured—this time paler and more sterile, sometimes accompanied by white gloves. This was pre-apocalyptic clothing with a catch, just nearly all-weather; protective gear contrasted against ruffled dresses in chiffon layers, both paranoid and vulnerable, exposing soft and beating parts as the v-necks did, too. Cowboy boots, always quietly pointed under trousers, proved their resilience through the seasons, both subtle and distinct. Simons’ understanding of Calvin Klein is that of an American eternity, the characters never dying, lurking ominously on that frontier between history and legend.

At Pyer Moss in February, Kerby Jean-Raymond’s cowboys worked their way out of the historical record to reintroduce themselves—the Fall 2018 collection was inspired by oft-overlooked black cowboys of the 19th century, as well as one of the most popular black rodeo performers of the era, “The Dusky Demon” Bill Pickett, Jean-Raymond translated traditional Western costuming into something more regal than workwear. We saw satin and patched-up suiting, fringed chaps evolving into jeans with pleated sides. These looks enforced the power of the frontier-myth’s persistence; that ability to know it when you see it, testing your ability to recognize and to integrate. Most of the time, “urban cowboys” have to prove that they even exist before they even get to the “cowboy” part, qualified through their surroundings. But Jean-Raymond’s objection to calling Pyer Moss “streetwear” or “urban wear” feels relevant here: the collection’s title was “American, Also.” “AS USA AS U” is printed on the legs of one of his Reebok collaboration’s jumpsuits. These were just cowboys—no qualifiers except for rodeo, maybe, where the outfits are showy and elaborate and most importantly ultra-visible.
On a limited edition cover of Kaleidoscope’s Spring/Summer 18 issue, Telfar Clemens stands on a dirt road. In cursive, underneath him, are the words “I’m not just a cowboy, I’m a cow. We’re all cows—for now,” a statement that seems to act along the same lines as his eponymous label’s slogan, “Not for you, for everyone.” It feels like a guide to his interpretation of a genre so frequently occupied with “rugged individualism”–“Telfar Country" is blanketed in snow; it’s the dust of the Wild West, just backwards. The fall collection featured fringed track pants and jackets, coats with long slits up the sleeves, hanging like ponchos. More echoes of chaps in denim with cut-outs and angled thigh-high leather panels. Everything is excessively functional. Between hoodies with built-in caps and jeans that become flare-legged sweatpants at the knee, “CUSTOMER” printed on the rear, we’re reminded that Western outfits are costume and uniforms at the same time, the Wild West show with the romance sucked out of it, vaudevillian and sneering.

The most apparent figure in the Western is a settler: a pioneer-slash-cowboy, star of endless movies. Anxious and eager and rugged all at once, he maintains order where there is none, as violently decided mid-Manifest Destiny. He is not the only figure, just the one most impossible to avoid, as the main character of one of America’s most intricately-built founding myths, values in tow. We confront him in every invocation of the Western, and the Western exists as long as America exists. Of course there is an extension into the harsh “final frontier” that is outer space—Sergio Leone’s bounty hunters turn to those from Cowboy Bebop; the first track on Travis Scott’s 2015 Rodeo situating us “nine light years away, just outside the Kepler solar system.” Mason Ramsey yodels in a Walmart with geography out of sight; the internet was also a “new frontier” at some point. And prairie dresses pair with pristine white “astronaut boots” at Calvin Klein. If the Western is pre-apocalyptic, then there’s a sense of inevitability in some of this world’s-end dressing, and its evocation of a “new frontier.” The same sense is there in the luxury survivalism of the wealthy: when they feel uneasy about the precarious fate of the old frontier, they just make plans to occupy a new one, maybe the final one—SpaceX contrails over California score the new evening redness in the west.

Rina Nkulu is a writer and artist living in Arizona. Her work has appeared in Real Life, Rookie, and more.

  • Text: Rina Nkulu