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.
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.
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.
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)