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[REV 25-NOV-2014]

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Cocktail Cowboys: 1939

Cocktail Cowboys: 1939

June 1939. "Dudes in town. Billings, Montana." 35mm nitrate negative by Arthur Rothstein for the Resettlement Administration. View full size.

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Spot the slightly different costume

The man on the left doesn't have any fancy lacing around the edges of his hat. I have no way of knowing for certain, but my instincts tell me that if this were in color, both that lacing, as well as the shirts, would probably all be bright fire-engine red.

Smothers Brothers Reminiscence

"I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy.
You see by my outfit that I'm a cowboy too.
We see by our outfits that we are both cowboys.
If you get an outfit you can be a cowboy too."

My daughter loves to hear me sing this to the tune of "Streets of Laredo."

Tom Mix had a lot to answer for

Prior to the early 1920s, professional cowboys and other horse and cattle ranch workers regarded their gear -- the boots, chaps, wide brimmed hats and other accessories -- as specialized work clothes, not unlike the way an electrician regards the crawl suit that he wears to go under houses.

Until Tom Mix and other Hollywood stars inspired a craze for "Western Wear" in the early 1920s, "real" cowboys who could afford them wore three-piece tailored suits and normal street shoes when they went into town to socialize or do business. My dad, born in 1909, was raised on Charles Hersig's Wyoming Hereford Ranch. He often mentioned that the older ranchers he knew in Wyoming in the 1920s were shocked and not a little disgusted when they started seeing "office workers and drugstore clerks" parading around on city streets and showing up at dances in silly and purely ornamental versions of the ranchers' battered work clothes.

An appropriate term may be

Lounge Lizards.

"Dudes" still in original use

I go hiking in areas where there's a lot of guide/outfitters who use horses. They still use the word "dude" to refer to horse-riding newbies.


These fellows were taking part in the Go Western Day parade in Billings, maybe as part of a band. Or just spectating.

All snazzed up

Pretty nice outfits, almost a complete match. Nicely ironed, all cleaned up. These gents are a far cry from some of the scraggly-looking Depression-era cowpokes we see sometimes. Of course, this is the tail end of the Depression. I haven't heard Bob Wills in years!


I bet they are wearing their pants tucked into their boots too, which is rarely actually done.

Too Costumey

The reason these guys look like dudes instead of real cowboys is because real cowboys would never wear these adult versions of the old Sears catalog Boys' Playwear that emulated genuine western wear. Looks like their moms and aunts bought Simplicity Patterns and fashioned these get-ups on their Singer teadle sewing machines by buying a full bolt of fake leather material and concho decor. At least they were allowed to personalize them through their own scarf and belt choices but unfortunately, not their cheesey hats. These fellows might fit in to a performance at Branson, Mo. or some Disney-type venue, but the truth is they probably were not taken seriously by hard-working, clod-busting, cattle-driving Montana cowboys. Incidentally, when I was a kid growing up in industrial Connecticut, a friend of mine had a theory that Montana was a fictional place, like Atlantis or Brigadoon, since NONE of our many acquaintances had ever even known anyone from Montana, never went to Montana and never even saw a license plate from Montana. Whenever I hear anything regarding Montana, I think of him and hope he finally believed it does exist. Sorry I'm rambling again.

[They look costumey because they're costumes. They're at (or in) a parade. - Dave]

Cocktail Playboys

So, was Bob Wills playing Billings that night?

SHORPY HISTORICAL PHOTO ARCHIVE | History in HD is a vintage photo archive featuring thousands of high-definition images from the 1850s to 1960s. (Available as fine-art prints from the Shorpy Archive.) The site is named after Shorpy Higginbotham, a teenage coal miner who lived 100 years ago.

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