So Brokeback Mountain did not win the All-Around Champion award at the Oscar rodeo after all, despite odds in its favor. Its upset 11 days ago is the stuff of cowboy legend, if not quite the Alamo. But the movie can lay claim to an achievement that no other film of last year can. With its representation of two plain cowboys who fell in love in plain old Western wear, it hit the fashion bull's-eye. Cowboy boots, snap-button shirts and big ol' belt buckles -- standards that have come and gone several times before -- are striding back into style.
In New York, Ralph Lauren has opened two stores devoted to RRL, his line of clothes with a vintage Western feel; Los Angeles is next. At Rockmount Ranch Wear, the venerable Denver retailer, sales of Western shirts are up 25 percent in the last year. On eBay, Western hats, belt buckles and shirts are up 25 percent in the last month alone. The latest collaboration between a hot fashion designer and an old-school brand is Marc Jacobs and Wrangler.
The Dsquared spring collection, a nostalgic cowboy roundup (complete with leather aprons for shoeing your horse), has been one of the season's best sellers at stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman.
"The cowboy is the guy version of blonde," said Dan Caten, a designer of the line. "It's a classic icon of manliness. All guys relate to it."
But do they? The latest return of cowboy style is hardly a craze like that ignited by Urban Cowboy in 1980 and tromped into the dust thereafter. Unlike the showy finery of a quarter century ago, which eventually brought Western wear low, today's looks exude a laconic Gary Cooper restraint.
This subdued style underscores the ambivalence many men, straight and gay, feel for cowboy style. These are the most masculine of clothes, but with the twist of a bandanna and a too-big buckle, they can veer easily into dude wear. Men itching to indulge in a bit of cowboy find themselves both attracted and torn. There is the romance of the Old West, sure. But they are also faced with two modern-day maverick extremes, which are hard to reconcile. On one side is a president fond of Texas-size belt buckles and a penchant for news conferences in the Texas chaparral. On the other, a pair of gay cowboys who rode off with every film honor. Almost.
When you unravel the history of cowboys and their clothes, the 150-year tug of war over who's a cowboy and who's a dude, as department-store cowboys are still derisively called, gets tangled. The Wild West may be the place where branding was born, but if the last 150 years have made anything clear, it is that no one has staked a clear copyright claim on cowboy style.
"That tension goes way, way back to the 19th century, and words like `dude,' `tenderfoot,' `greenhorn,'" said Lauren Wilson, a professor of textiles at the University of Missouri-Columbia and a clothing historian who specializes in cowboy gear. "All those terms clearly illustrate that tension. Westerners often look with derision at places like Cody, Wyoming, where Easterners buy all the accouterments and spend a lot of money doing it."
The fashion for wearing Western shirts untucked drives her clear around the bend. "That's not a Western look at all," Wilson said. "No self-respecting cowboy would ever wear his shirt like that."
In the 1920s and 1930s fantasy and reality collided with the boom of the dude ranch, where rich Easterners would get "duded up" in expensive Western gear and be squired around by dude wranglers, out-of-work riders often none too thrilled to play-act a scripted role. That faceoff was brought to cinematic life in Westworld (1973), in which robot gunslingers led by Yul Brynner go haywire at a Wild West resort and kill off the tourists. (The idea was so good that Michael Crichton, the script's author, rewrote it into Jurassic Park. A Westworld remake is in development.)