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The Look

The Way Of The West

At Mantle Ranch in Three Forks, Montana, a few of the locals put our Gucci, Saint Laurent and Visvim collections through their paces

The cowboy is an original American archetype: he stands for independence, self-reliance and the freedom to shape one’s own destiny. That enduring streak of determination has extended far into the culture, with deep associations in film, television and advertising. The Marlboro Man, an icon of 20th-century billboards, squinted past us into the distance. And the outfit of the Western man is well known.

What gin is to the martini, denim is to the cowboy – the classic base around which all else revolves. Levi’s made its first jeans with rivets in 1873. The rest of the uniform – fringe jackets, yoked shirts, shearling coats, heavy-duty boots, a healthy dose of plaid and chambray – are honest clothes made to be worn hard. Their use reflects the wearer, as good clothes should, and that’s a reason they’ve been a part of wardrobes for generations of men who’ve never swung a lasso. Even a dandy still responds to a shirt that you can have for a decade because there’s a value in how something should be made, and an equal value in how something should be owned: for years, in bad weather as well as good.

Western clothes remain a factor to be reckoned with because they describe the modern man as he evolves, just like the progression of the Western film. The formal classicism and sharp morality of Mr John Ford’s Rio Grande in 1950 gave way to Mr George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). In the latter, Messrs Robert Redford and Paul Newman robbed banks for fun, and the winning leading men helped make a chambray shirt with a corduroy jacket an appealing option. The blurring of the line between white collar and workwear had begun.

If there was once a friction between clothes you wore on horseback and clothes you wore to mosey up Madison Avenue, that distinction is even more tenuous today. That’s why it’s not uncommon to come across a double-breasted sportcoat over a Western shirt (see Mr Lapo Elkann for great success). In fact, a Western shirt often brings out the best in tailored clothing. It also looks at home, as you would expect, beneath a flannel, Pendleton-style overshirt.

The appeal of this indigenous American look has only grown stronger since European designers, including Saint Laurent and Gucci, embraced it and gave it some rock’n’roll swagger. Japanese designers including Mr Hiroki Nakamura of Visvim have taken Western staples and elevated them to high art – such as a denim shirt in Egyptian Giza cotton with mother-of-pearl buttons. These designers understand that the cowboy may have been stoic but the clothes remain expressive. The fundamental language is denim and leather, which combine to express elemental ruggedness in a timeless way.

While the Canadian tuxedo may not be for every man, most men know to wear denim separately for best results. Jeans have been paired fearlessly for a while – and you can continue to do so with confidence. I unfortunately wore jeans with a tuxedo jacket to my junior prom. This was a highly calculated manoeuvre – I was an aspiring clothes horse at the time – and I’m glad I got this out of my system, like the chicken pox.

That’s not to say there is no ornamentation here. The fringe jacket was originally made of buckskin and the fringe was functional, allowing water to drip away from the coat and keep it dry. It has progressed into a leaner jacket, often in suede, and perfectly at home in the city (though it looked less so on Mr Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy). It’s for a man who wears his sense of confidence lightly.

What keeps men coming back to Western wear is the fact that these clothes are meant to be worn. Worn. Your denim should display your battle scars. Men remain attracted to clothes that tell a story. As the ranchers in this story swapped their workday gear for steeper pieces that first appeared on the runways of Paris and Milan last summer, a funny thing happened. Instead of ridiculing the clothes, they embraced them. “This suede jacket is really nice. What would it run me?” asked one of these men as he rode off to rope some cattle in a jacket from no less an outfitter than Gucci. As the frontier changes, the archetype must, too.