A composite of reality and fable, the cowboy represents many aspects of the American national character. He is a rugged individualist with a strong sense of values and an insatiable quest for adventure. He’s hard-working, smart and kind, but doesn’t take crap from anybody. These ideals are echoed in various forms of western expression, from the novels of Zane Grey and the 19th-century paintings of Frederic Remington to the singing cowboy films of the 1950s and the songs of present-day country musicians.
While a great deal of the cowboy image seems romantic and unrealistic, a fraction of the mythology is grounded in history. The rise of the cowboy as an American icon speaks directly to the idealism of New World immigrants, to the severity of the western frontier, and to the relationship between Native Americans and European settlers.
At the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles, the spurious and the genuine collide. Seven permanent galleries explore the rich cultural history of the western frontier, and the legacy of Manifest Destiny. Each gallery is dedicated to a certain “Spirit of the West.” For example, the Spirit of Romance Gallery presents paintings by Frederic Remington along with posters, books and paraphernalia of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, all of which contributed to the fantastical images of the wild west that captivated the American public for more than a century.
In contrast, the Spirit of Opportunity Gallery presents the journey of western adventurers in their pursuit of happiness. Gold diggers, trappers and religious missionaries all made the perilous journey west with hopes of new freedom and untold riches. Some made the long cross-country trek; others weathered treacherous seas and the thick jungles of Panama in the voyage. Although their travels were often fueled by the idealistic notions of the west depicted in popular literature, the reality they built is the west as we know it.
The Spirit of Community Gallery shows how western settlers and Native Americans constructed this reality, and how that world reflected the topographic, climatic and cultural challenges they faced.
Together, the permanent galleries and exhibits portray a dramatic picture of western expansion. They are augmented by periodic traveling shows and temporary exhibits drawn from the museum’s 51,000 permanent artifacts.
Temporary shows focus intensely on one aspect of the western experience. Running through January 21 is “How The West Was Worn,” which explores nearly two centuries of fashion in the American West, “from the frontier to the runway.” This exhibit investigates the cultural evolution of western wear, making tentative associations between European immigrants, Native Americans, Mexicans and the entertainment industry in the development of the western look and the cowboy ideology.
The exhibit is divided into four chronological galleries displaying dress from the 1820s to the present. It features over 150 stunning examples of western fashion ranging from the everyday wear of 19th-century cowhands to the resplendent regalia of Sioux ceremonial dress and rhinestone-studded Nudie Suits. Classic photography, period advertisements and countless original artifacts supply the historical context, while narrative panels carefully integrate the romantic stories of the western frontier with real life examples of cowboys, cowgirls, Indians and immigrants.
The exhibit explains the origin and practical use of certain pieces of clothing, then traces that use to the glamorized versions which appeared in film or onstage. Television and film excerpts show the costumes in both their practical roles (the rodeo) and their Hollywood adaptations (the Lone Ranger). Several touchable samples, such as angora, embroidery and fringe, are mounted on the outside of the display cases, adding an innovative tactile aspect to the museum experience.
From the onset of the exhibit, visitors are shown how the dress of the American West sets the region apart from the rest of America. Patrons see the way gauntlets were used to protect western cattle ropers from rope burns, and learn that chaps were designed to guard against the dry rough shrubbery of the Southwest. Bandanas originally served as dust masks in the arid, windblown desert, whereas fringe was adopted as a way to keep extra strips of leather available for repairing moccasins or saddles.
One gallery, for example, contains the all-leather, fringed garments of an Anglo-American frontiersman, which, though designed as shirt and pants, mimic Native American designs of the same era, ca. 1900. From there, we are led to the stage getup of Jack Sinclair (bandleader for the Dodge City Cowboy Band), which boasts stylish chaps, fur vest, cowboy hat, tie, flashy boots, and spurs. Directly across from Sinclair’s outfit hangs an actual ceremonial costume worn by Sitting Bull that, in addition to its ornate Native American detail, exemplifies the influence of Europeans with its many non-Indian features.