That Really Chaps My Hide!

Besides the trademark hat and boots, the item of clothing that says Cowboy more than any other has to be his chaps. Evolved from the chaparejos of the Mexican vaqueros, chaps were originally designed as part of the saddle. Made of animal hides, these armas, or shields,  attached to the horn of the saddle and wrapped around the rider’s legs as well as the horse’s chest.

Now, if you’re like me and didn’t grow up around authentic cowboy culture, you probably pronounce chaps like I do with a ch sound like in the word cheek. However, it truth, it is pronounced with an sh sound like in the Spanish word chaparral, which interestingly enough is the scrubby vegetation that motivated the vaqueros to create chaps in the first place.

Shotguns

In the 1830s and 40s, the first full-length leather britches were created that completely encircled the legs (although the seat remained uncovered). By the 1870s, these garments came to be known as “shotguns” because they were basically two leather cylinders belted together resembling the double barrels of a shotgun.

The waist belt was square cut and buckled at the back. Many came with pockets that closed with a flap and a cowboy could personalize his set by the way he dressed up the outer seams. Many had fringe or conchas. Although, most working cowhands weren’t too concerned with appearance. All they cared about was the protection the leggings provided against not only vegetation, but weather as well. They kept a man’s trousers dry in rain and afforded an extra layer of warmth in wintry conditions. In hot months, though, a man often removed them and worked without. Some men claimed they gave a firmer seat in the saddle since leather clings to leather and afforded a stronger grip with the knees.

Shotgun chaps were put on like a pair of pants. They flared a bit at the ankle to allow a cowboy to put them on without having to remove his boots or even spurs.

Batwings

In the 1880s, due to the popularity of  Wild West Shows and rodeos, a new style of chaps came into fashion. This variety featured wide leather wings that flapped out to the sides. In the beginning, batwing chaps mimicked the step-in style of the shotguns with buckles running the length of the outside seam. However, by the turn of the century, fewer buckles were used and more leather was added. The open leg style took precedence with the chaps only being fastened to the back of the knee. They also became highly decorated with colored leather designs, silver conchos, fancy stitching, and all kinds of custom leather tooling.

This is the style you continue to see along the rodeo circuit today.

Woolies

Around the same time as the introduction of the batwing, another style emerged on the scene. Woolies became exceedingly popular among cowboys who worked northern ranches, like those in Wyoming or Montana. Most were made from Angora goat skin, but they could also be made from bear, buffalo, or even mountain lion. The wool helped to repel water and added a significant layer of warmth. They were fashioned like the shotguns, as a step-in model, and usually were found in solid colors, white and black being the most common. They had a canvas lining which aided putting them on and taking them off, as the rough leather on the opposite side of the fur would not slide easily over a man’s trousers.

So which style of chaps would you prefer your hero to wear? Have any of you worn them yourself? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

I’ll be in and out today since I’m at the American Christian Fiction Writers conference, but I’ll check in as often as possible. Blessings!

(Reference – I See By Your Outfit: Historical Cowboy Gear of the Northern Plains by Tom Lindmier & Steve Mount)

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For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at: www.karenwitemeyer.com.

23 thoughts on “That Really Chaps My Hide!”

  1. Interesting post, Karen! Can you even imagine Angora chaps? I pity the poor wife who found them in the laundry basket . . .

  2. Hi Judy.
    Thanks so much for your comment. I can’t imagine trying to launder chaps. I imagine these men considered them clean if they got rained on a time or two during the year. Maybe they slung them over a fence and beat them like a rug. I can imagine those women yelling at their menfolk to take off their chaps before they came into the house, though.

  3. The heroes in my stories tend to wear the shotguns. Mainly, because the stories take place prior to the batwings’ introduction.

    I’ve never cared for woolies. They just don’t do a lot for me. I’ve never personally worn chaps, but I’ve been surrounded by uncles, cousins, friends, etc wearing them.

    Thanks for the interesting blog! Have fun at the AFCW Conference.

    –Kirsten

  4. Hi Karen,
    Very interesting post! I didn’t know most of this–very informative, and I love the pictures, too. I guess I never thought of it much, but my hero would have to wear the batwinds’ or the shotguns. I just can’t see him in the “woolies.” LOLLOL

    Hope you are enjoying the conference!
    Cheryl P.

  5. Hi Karen,

    Very interesting post especially about the pronunciation. Shaps. Cute 🙂 My hero wears the shotguns because batwings hadn’t come on the scene yet.

    Have a wonderful time at the conference,

    Cher

  6. Karen, I confess I love how chaps look on a cowboy, especially the batwing kind. To me, they’re very sexy and are the kind I want my hero to wear. All except the woolies. Those just look weird. But like you said, the real working cowboy wasn’t all that concerned with appearance.

    Thanks for such an interesting post. You always find the best subjects.

    Have a good time at ACFW!

  7. Wonderful post, Karen, and so full of good stuff. When we went on our Wyoming wagon train, our wagon master wore chaps all the time, and most of the cowboys did too. Loved the authenticity. Have a wonderful time at ACFW. I can’t wait to hear all about it. oxoxo

  8. Cheryl,

    Those woolies are a bit furry for my taste too, but apparently they were the thing to wear in Wyoming where the men spent so much time out in the snow. The trouser version of the buffalo robe I guess.

  9. Cher – That pronunciation thing has really thrown me for a loop. I want to be correct, but I just can’t seem to get the ch out of my head. I guess I’ll have to work on it. 🙂

  10. Hi, Linda. Those batwings always make me think of today’s rodeo stars. And those are definitely some great examples of modern western manhood. You’d have to have the right amount of swagger to carry them off though.

    Thanks for the well wishes. So far everything is going great!

  11. Hey, Tanya. You’re a step ahead of me with that pronunciation. Someday, I’m going to have to do one of those trips you described. They sound fabulous! What a way to immerse yourself in your characters’ world. Love it!

  12. My mom owns a beat up pair of batwing chaps that belonged to her father in the early part of the 20th century. Thank you for giving me a bit more knowledge about a well-worn, but treasured, piece of family history!

  13. Several years ago I read the book ‘Prairie’ and pictured the main character who was a real person,Charles Irwin, as tall and lanky. He was after all a bull rider. I asked a friend who also was a bull rider if he had ever heard of him (he had). Later that fall we were in Colorado in the North Park area which is mentioned in the book and had a chance to go to the museum in Waldon.There I found Charles Irwin’s chaps. That is when I learned to say shaps and that Mr. Irwin was really a rather short man. His chaps could not have been much more than 22 inches long.

  14. Connie – Only 22 inches? Wow, that is short. Although there were some riders who wore shortened chaps that only fell to below the knees. But those were earlier versions. How cool to see the museum after you read the book. I love finding treasures like that, and they mean so much more when you have a context for them. Thanks for sharing about Charles Irwin.

  15. Hope I’m not too late. You didn’t mention Chinks.Those are worn in not too brushy country. Also the horse shoer wears them. My family wears them. They also wear shotguns. I have personally sewn zippers into new shotguns. Now that is a chore not wished on too many. Thanks for the info. Woolies were only worn in the COLD country of the North. Montana cowboys. I am happy you used the Spanish term for chaps. We say it all the time, here.

  16. Hi, Mary. It’s never too late. ;-). You’re right. I did leave out the chinks. It sounds like you really know you’re chaps. I can’t imagine sewing a zipper into that heavy leather. I am impressed. Hope you have a fabulous weekend.

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