Interview with Author of "Westerwear" Dr. Sonya Abrego

Interview with Author of "Westernwear" Dr. Sonya Abrego

Dr. Sonya Abrego’s new book “Westernwear: Postwar American Fashion and Culture,” published by Bloomsbury late last year, attempts to unpick the history of westernwear in the twenty years after WWII.

Westernwear is a big part of what we care about here, obviously. Along with “ivy” and “military,” westernwear is the third pillar of American style. The pearl-snap shirt, the 1947 Levi’s 501, Lee Stormrider, cowboy boots, and countless other garments are all part of the fabric of American style, some more mainstream than others. From reproductions from brands like The Real McCoy’s to reinterpretations of pieces from the likes of Kapital, westernwear is still one of the key visual languages men’s style communicates in.  

Dr. Sonya Abrego’s new book “Westernwear: Postwar American Fashion and Culture,” published by Bloomsbury late last year, attempts to unpick the history of westernwear in the twenty years after WWII. With the brand's Lee, Wrangler, Pendelton, and Miller Stockman at the core of the text, Dr. Abrego charts the popularity of westernwear in the postwar period, examining how a style with roots in the 19th century became part of the atomic age and connects the mostly working-class history of westernwear to American fashion and trends. The book is the result of Dr. Abrego’s Ph.D. thesis at the Bard Graduate Center, and is an instructor at Parsons School of Design, The New School, and The Fashion Institute of Technology. We had a chance to catch up with Dr. Abrego and talk about her new book, westernwear’s relationship to workwear, and the two other F words.

Standard & Strange: What about western wear captured your interest that you'd want to spend as much time as you spent on this?

Sonya Abrego: I had done a lot of work that was around mid-century. I knew it was going to have to be something that was American, that connected with pop culture. I had written about film costuming and things like that, and more popular material, not high fashion. Western wear is everywhere, and no one had really written about it. There are some coffee table books about Western shirts and some biographies of some designers like the rodeo tailors. But it hadn't really been treated in a deep dive in terms of the cultural history, and there's a lot to say.

S&S: Your book focuses on four brands: Pendelton, Lee, Wrangler, and Miller Stockman. How'd you come to these brands as the center of the book?

SA: I could probably go on about that for a while because that's so interesting to me. Well, so we have Pendleton Woollen Mills in the Pacific Northwest, and they've been around since the late 19th century. Makers of, pretty famously, blankets and apparel. The Pendleton Roundup Rodeo is one of the oldest rodeos in the country. The company was a huge sponsor of this event and is still involved in the cowboy culture surrounding the event. They also had a really unique connection to Native American communities, specifically in that much of their consumer base for the blanket trade was Native American and always pretty much had been.

Lee was originally based in Salina, Kansas. When I visited their archive, it was in Kansas City, it has since moved because the parent company changed hands. Visiting the Lee archive was one of the most exciting things for me. I was one of the first people to get into that archive as a researcher that had nothing to do with the company or the business, and that was such a privilege. It's a wonderful collection and a wonderful history that hasn't been recorded yet. And then the Wrangler company is based out of North Carolina. So not really that Western, geographically, if we think about it. And yet their image, consumer base, and brand to this day certainly is Western. So that's interesting too. Miller Stockman's a little smaller and a little bit more niche, but they're in Denver and they started in the twenties. Their catalog company predominantly sold a bunch of different brands. But they also had a small line of their own apparel, their own western shirting.

Some archives are more complete than others. That's kind of the nature of it, especially when you're dealing with work clothes. But the other thing was that these were brands that were targeting a middle market or a mass market audience. Pendleton was a bit more upscale, but generally, they were selling at a price point similar to ready-to-wear, that was similar to department stores, that was similar to the kind of consumer I was interested in, and that's what made it really work for me. They're from very different parts of the country, but they all have legitimate claims to Western history, and community connections exist. I think that's something that, hopefully, I've been able to draw out and make people think about

S&S: In the book, you take on the idea of westernwear as workwear. Despite some of the more luxurious fabrics and decorative trims, westernwear is workwear. That is not to say it doesn’t have style?  

SA: Of course, it's workwear. It's always been workwear, cowboys worked in it, and that's how it was produced and manufactured, and that's who it was made for originally. Were there stylish treatments of it? Yes. I think workwear, as we think of it presently, has the inflection of industrial labor, and that's great and appropriate, but a lot of these styles were worn in the West differently. But it's absolutely a workwear style. I love that about it because it proves the point that there are styles in working people's clothes, and there always have been. Just because it's not a completely rectangular straight-line chore jacket doesn't mean it's not work clothes. We have evidence of people wearing it to work for close to a couple of centuries now. So yeah, that's one of the things I want to complicate, or at least maybe open up a little bit. Just because something could have a variation with embroidery on it doesn't mean it doesn't still come from work clothes.

S&S: Of course, I need to ask about jeans. In the book, jeans stand out as an example of something that is very much part of Westernwear while also becoming just part of American style. What is it about jeans that allowed them to escape the genre, unlike, say a pearl snap shirt? I know this is a huge question.

SA: Jeans just took on their own life for some of the stereotypical reasons that we read about in every kind of denim history you could find. They were versatile and easy to wear and comfortable and durable. But, there's got to be more to it, and I think it partially comes from the branding, and it comes from the experimentations with fits and style, specifically tighter fits. Even though there are these origin stories and these histories that heritage branding plays up, I think it was the more stylish treatment of jeans that made them popular in different contexts. I don't mean by the “fashion industry,” I just mean by these denim companies responding to things that were trendier at the time and by the way people were wearing them on their own that looked cool. Like bikers, rodeo riders, and hot rod kids wearing their jeans and styling them in different ways. All of that, I think, contributed to it in the early years and then, of course, the movies, Rock n’ roll, and all those good things.

S&S: You aren’t only an academic but a collector as well. I hate this word, but do you have a “grail” piece of westernwear that you have found or that you're still on the hunt for?

SA: I hate that word, too. I'm glad you said that. But I get asked this all the time. Truthfully, I'm not the biggest Westernwear collector. I can name many Westernwear collectors who have many more than me. A lot of fantastic pieces passed through my hands over the years, but my collection is pretty eclectic. I like a lot of different things, and Western wear is in the mix. But if I have a “grail,” it has to be something I’ve never seen before. Like some weird pair of jeans where they put the label on the wrong side because it came from a weird factory. I want to find something I've never seen before. But no, maybe I'm just so contrary, but as soon as something becomes really hot in the vintage market, I just couldn't care less.

S&S: It may be another interview, but “grail” culture and how social media has really heightened that to quite an alarming degree. I don't want to sound like “old man yells at cloud,” but these collectors who have a checklist of the things they need to get just feel so hollow to me.

SA: I know, it's so depressing. Yeah, I am an old man yelling at the cloud. People should ultimately buy what they like and wear, so I wouldn't want to judge anyone. But I just feel like, when it starts to get to that level, how is that different from hounding after designer labels or wanting the right logo bag? It's antithetical to how I came to this stuff, which was piecemeal, figuring it out as I went and getting excited about the things that I liked. That happened before social media, so maybe that's just not a way that collectors can learn anymore, and maybe that's fine. I have a hard time relating to the whole checklist thing.

S&S: In the conclusion of your book, you use this device of the two “F words,” which I really enjoyed. Could you talk about those two “F words” and how they interact in your research and your book?

SA: Well, in fashion studies, and fashion scholarship, Valerie Steele, who's still the director of the museum at FIT, did this famous essay years back, referring to fashion as the “F word” within the academy. As in something that was not taken seriously, that wasn't treated in a scholarly way, for a number of reasons. Wasn't seen as a legitimate field of study. This article goes back to the nineties, and there are still traces of that in the world. Around the same time, in American studies, you had very famous Western historians, Patricia Nelson Limerick chief among them, who were trying to grapple with the legacy of the frontier myth. (The Frontier myth is the idea that Western expansion was a defining moment in American history and treated in a very prideful way when effectively it was a brutal conquest that should be treated for what it was.) In trying to think about Western histories [in a new way], eliminating the idea of the frontier altogether and opening the history up to different perspectives, thinking about this history in a different way. So my book is taking the F word of fashion and the F word of frontier and smashing them together and analyzing, at least for a 20-year window of history, how those things operated.

S&S: Last question for you. What do you think of the westernwear replica or reproduction brands mostly out of Japan? Would you ever try to tackle how these brands are trying to recapture this period of time that you spent so much time researching?

SA: I think it's fascinating, but I'm totally biased. I still think Japan does the best job with all vintage recreations. I'm just going to put that out there because they do. I'm very interested in that, but am I the best person to do it, as someone who doesn't speak and read Japanese? Maybe not. I think as much as I'd like to examine this, I think there are some challenges with primary sources there. But that doesn't mean I'm not open to it or investigating it in some kind of comparative way. I think is very rich and definitely worth exploring.

By Charles MacFarlane

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