What Is a Cowboy, Anyway?

Every few years, it rides into town on a glossy white horse with the whole mixed-up mythology of frontier America crammed into its saddle bags: cowboy-core. We saw it most recently in late March, when Beyoncé turned country music on its head with the release of “Cowboy Carter.” That country-inflected album, still holding firm at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, not only lit up the BeyHive but simultaneously loosed a torrent of tropes and memes and posts and pictorials about cowboy style.

What is it? What does it stand for? Who owns it? How do you arrive at any single meaning of “cowboy” when the stylistic variants run from western to modern to rhinestone to preppy to line-dancing Saturday night buckaroo to Black?

“The notion of the real has always haunted the figure of the cowboy,” said Josh Garrett-Davis, curator of Western American history at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif. “There is this paradoxical relationship with authenticity.”

Nowhere is this clearer than when fashion gets in on the act. One season a designer like Pharrell Williams is making his debut for Louis Vuitton with a predictable ode to Paris and “Frenchness.” By the next, he’s presenting a collection hailed as “Wild West meets melting pot America” that showcases every imaginable trope from a grab bag of postwar cowboy kitsch: fringe, cowhide valises, embroidered rodeo jackets (in the style of the Nashville designer Manuel Cuevas), turquoise snap fasteners on shirts, steel-toed boots and 10-gallon hats.

Frilled rodeo shirt, check; bolo tie, check; turquoise buttons, check; steel-toed boots, check. Still, you’d be hard pressed to find a rodeo cowboy carrying a handbag from Louis Vuitton’s January men’s wear show. Credit…Francois Durand/Getty Images

Conjure an image of vast photo murals inside the Vuitton Foundation depicting John Ford country. Then populate the Big Sky landscapes with models representative of a new narrative, one updated to include the Indigenous, Mexican and Black cowboys who, in reality, made up a significant portion of the cowboy work force, as Dr. Garrett-Davis said.

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