What’s Up in Western Show Fashion

By Laurel Berger O’Connor

This Western pleasure competitor is ready to win in a rhinestone-studded slinky. | By Hobby Horse Clothing Company

If you show in western events, your polished, up-to-date turnout will boost your confidence and catch the judge’s eye. If you live the Western lifestyle, you’ll also want to step out in style outside the show pen. But as you know, Western show-apparel, show-tack, and streetwear trends change from season to season. So how do you know what’s hot? Look no further! For this article, we chatted with experts in all things Western. Read on to get the scoop on everything from show apparel and tack to Western-fashion apparel and accessories. Find out what’s hot right now, and what’s coming down the Western trail.

Western Show Apparel
As 2004 approaches, “We’ll see a gradual return to classier, less embellished clothes,” predicts Suzanne Drnec of Hobby Horse Clothing Company. “And, we’ll see a greater emphasis on comfort, due to both proper fit and stretch fabrics.” Cherryl Sergeant of Sergeant’s Western World agrees. “Knit fabrications are really the rage in Western show tops because of the comfort and fit factor.”

The retro look, this year’s rage, will stay strong, but with a different interpretation. “Retro will remain more as an accent than as a focus, such as a bit of piping or some embroidery,” says Drnec.

Retro influence also depends on your particular class, notes Sergeant. “In trail and especially in reining, retro looks will continue to be dominant,” she says.

On the other hand, Sergeant notes, top amateurs are going with one-color, top-to-toe coordination in horsemanship and showmanship classes. In the Western pleasure pen, the one-color look is carried to the extreme, with crystals on the yokes and down the legs for extra pizzazz.

However, at lower levels, a less flamboyant look is more the norm (and easier on your budget). Your best bet: As you add apparel items to your show wardrobe, think classy, classic looks, but with a move toward more color than seen in recent years. Here’s a closer look at women’s show-apparel trends.

Tops. Midnight blue, deep green, and chocolate offer safe yet distinctive alternatives to the traditional black. “Finally, Western riders seem to have figured out that if they wear black head-to-toe, they are all going to look like each other no matter how much they spend,” Drnec points out.

If you’re daring, venture into jewel tones, such as red, royal blue, or purple. The new hot top in Western pleasure: slinkies with dramatic accents–such as leather trim, and an abundance of crystals and rhinestones–to help catch the judge’s eye. Pair a lightweight slinky with a vest, or opt for a heavier knit that can stand alone. Another trend: “A knit blouse with wide collar and cuff, with or without a vest,” notes Sergeant. Babe Woods of Woods Western concurs. “I see a trend toward classy blouses with maybe just some pretty detail on the collar and French cuffs,” she says.


Vests/jackets. Vests, which flatter many body types, aren’t as popular as they’ve been in recent years, notes Sergeant, because “there’s so much new happening in shirt bodies.” Short jackets for rail classes may gain in popularity. “They give you that forgiving waist look,” notes Woods. “And they can add width at the shoulders with shoulder pads, which most vests don’t have.”

Tunics/blazers. Tunics–hip-covering tops with squared-off bottom hems–continue to increase in popularity in showmanship classes, where they provide the desired smooth silhouette. If you’re an all-around competitor, look for one designed to tuck in easily so it can double as your rail-class blouse. Blazers remain a showmanship staple–with a twist. “Showmanship has as much variety as the riding classes right now,” says Woods. “Short, long, mid-length, front closure, back closure, very understated, or extreme.”

Chaps. Think smooth leather, though suede remains a mainstay. Black remains the most popular color, but sand and chocolate are gaining ground. Bright colors, such as red and turquoise, are making a comeback, especially in monochrome outfits. But if you’re on a tight budget, simply buy the best pair of chaps you can afford in a neutral color; they’ll last you for years.

Hats. High-quality and perfectly shaped hats maintain their hold in the show pen. If you plan to advance to the higher levels, invest in at least a 20x fur-felt hat, and at least a 6-star straw. The traditional cattleman’s crease is still most common, and a simple hatband with a silver buckle. Have your fur-felt hat trimmed and shaped to fit your face. “A good hat shaper can make your hat fit your face while keeping a modern crease,” says Sergeant. Well-shaped straw hats remain appropriate in summer months, especially in trail, reining, and working cow horse, says Drnec.

Boots. Exotic inlays are hot–but note they won’t show under your chaps and stirrups. Leather, double-welted soles are gaining in favor, though crepe soles remain strong.

Belts. Coordinate your belt color with your show pants and chaps for a smooth look. Silver trim remains strong. Crystal-studded belts are big; some top competitors coordinate colored crystals to their outfits, and even add crystals to silver buckle-and-tip sets. But keep in mind that drawing attention to the midsection may not work for all body types. “A solid, plain belt that quietly blends with pants and chaps is far and away the most flattering look for Western pleasure and horsemanship classes,” says Drnec.

Accessories. Your crystal-studded show blouse will re-open doors for costume jewelry, such as pendants, pins, and earrings. Another new look: silk scarves, particularly those studded with crystals for extra sparkle.

Men’s show apparel. Crisply starched oxford-style shirts with chaps and jeans remain a winning look. Retro-inspired Western dress shirts–think classic Western yokes and snap closures–are also making an appearance. If you can find a crisp, clean plaid shirt, you’ll make an eye-catching impact; if not, stick with tried-and-true solid colors that complement your horse. Red, royal blue, purple, and yellow are hot, and white remains strong. For a classic showmanship look, combine a sport coat in subtle checks or earth-toned patterns with a shirt and tie; starched, pleated pants; a high-quality hat; and trendy leather or crepe-soled boots.

Western Show Tack
Tack trends move relatively more slowly than apparel trends, but you still need to know what will mark you a player in the show pen. Here’s what you need to know as we head into the 2004 season.

Show saddles.
Leather color. Leather color, say the experts, will remain where it’s been for years: light. “I don’t see that [trend] going anywhere,” says Dan Woods of Woods Western. Even the Arabian Western pleasure ring is seeing lighter saddles than usual, shifting away somewhat from the dark leather long seen in that arena. At the same time, Woods and other trend watchers note that more riders are moving away from the extremely light blond, bleached look toward saddles with a little color. Seat colors also remain more or less the same– look for black, or light–to medium-rust.

Design. You’ll see more saddle skirts with a “butterfly” cut that curves away under your legs. At the same time, longer skirts–up to 30 inches as opposed to the more traditional 28–are being spotted at some high-end shows. But be careful: A 30-inch skirt can look disproportionately long, especially on small, young horses.

Tooling. Extensive tooling remains a mainstay in the show pen; floral and oak-leaf patterns are among the most popular. “The more intricate, the better,” says Dale Chavez of Dale Chavez Company. The smaller the tooling, the more expensive, so the tiny “microflorals” retain their elite status. But medium-sized tooling may better fit your budget, and are entirely appropriate at the amateur levels. “Oak-leaf and entz [swirling , leaflike] patterns are the number-two best sellers,” says Dan Woods. Basketweave patterns alone still aren’t making a comeback in the Western pleasure ring, although there’s a surge of interest in a floral/basketweave combination pattern–especially one that appears more floral when mounted.

Silver. Attention-getting silver continues to increase in popularity. How much? “As much as you can afford,” says Dan Woods, adding that popular designs include “anything in relief,” such as beads and bumps. Silver that wraps around your saddle’s skirt corners is increasingly strong–but you won’t see it everywhere. “It’s one of those things that some people love and others don’t,” notes Mark Jemelka of Circle Y of Yoakum, Inc. Look also for intricately engraved silver overlaid on a black background, or silver combined with steel, copper, or gold. And in the top Western pleasure circles, you’ll even see colored stones or crystals on silver cornerplates.

Bridles. Again, think silver. Especially hot are engraved silver buckles that echo your saddle silver, and square-tube cheek–and earpieces, rather than the round-tube look.

Bits. Silver again–such as silver overlay on custom-made bits. Engraved initials or brands on the bit shanks are also strong. “Almost all the bits I sell are personalized,” says custom bit–and spurmaker Gordy Alderson. Another top-level trend, according to custom-bit maker Tom Balding of Tom Balding Bits & Spurs: Heavy bits with multijointed mouthpieces that allow competitors to cue their horses with minimal hand movement.

Saddle pads. Solids reign, particularly black and oatmeal. Metallic-gold threads woven into the fabric for sparkle are also trendy, says Dan Woods. Dress up your pad with silver conchos and leather trim. That said, three-color patterns are making a comeback. Such a pad will allow you to coordinate three different apparel colors–but make sure your patterned pad doesn’t compete with your total look.

Out Of The Saddle
Express your Western lifestyle anywhere you go! Here are the trends to look for in 2004.

Women’s apparel.
Style/fabric. Retro is hot, says Ginger Wallace of Roper Apparel & Footwear. She notes that Roper has tapped its 55-year-old archives to give an authentic touch to its retro-inspired tops, including vintage floral and Americana patterns. Feminine looks are also in. There’s a move away from heavy, starched fabrics toward lightweight shirts, including sheer lawn fabrics, according to Tammy Schwier of Rocky Mountain Clothing Company, which brands Cruel Girl for women and Cinch Jeans for men. You’ll find tops in both solids and prints, with stripes on the rise.

Color. Today’s color rules are “made to be broken,” says Wallace. Roper offers everything from striking pink and black to the more subdued dusty stone with touches of coral and turquoise. Pink and black also dominate Wrangler’s Twenty x-brand “Glam Rock” collection for 2004, which is inspired by 1980’s punk fashions reemerging in London. Western touches include horseshoes, leather straps, rhinestones, and silver studs.

Jeans. Look for stretchier fabrics and narrower silhouettes than ever before, with sandblasting and blister-effect surface treatments. And branch out from indigo. “Some colors [other than indigo] are coming back in,” says Rocky Mountain’s Cathy Soden. Keep an eye out particularly for natural black, she says.

Men, don

Men’s apparel.
Style/fabric. Men’s shirts are also trending toward lightweight fabrics. You’ll find small-scale plaids and checks, as well as tidy prints. “Things are cleaning up quite a bit,” says Rocky Mountain’s Schwier. And you can’t go wrong with a traditional Western silhouette that narrows at the hips, with snap closures and yokes. Or, you can opt for a button-down and one flapped pocket.

Color. Colors continue to soften going forward, with fewer bold shades. But you’ll find choices across the spectrum.

Jeans. Men’s jeans, which changed little for decades, are at last incorporating some concepts from the mainstream fashion world. Keep your traditional five-pockets, but don’t be afraid to get comfortable in a relaxed-fit jean made from a soft, broken-in fabric. “Before, all jeans were prewashed, rigid,” notes Ben Rapp of Wrangler. “Now there’s a growing demand for stone-washed fabric, which is softer–and new for Western-wear buyers.”

Other major manufacturers have added their own comfort touches. Diamond Gusset Clothing Company and Dia-mond Cut Jeans offer a diamond-shaped gusseted crotch rather than the usual center seam, eliminating stress points.

Interesting surface treatments, such as shade variations, are also hot in men’s jeans. And, while shades of indigo reign, black is back. Other colors–such as tan and green– are less popular than before, though you may see a resurgence in upcoming seasons.

Western accessories.
Round out your fashionable West-ern look with just the right boots, hat, and belt. Here’s an inside report.

Boots. “All footwear is moving toward performance and comfort,” says John Pearce of Justin Industries, maker of Justin, Tony Lama, Nocona, and Chippewa brands. “There’s a major shift away from all-leather outsoles toward more technical synthetic materials.” David Sparks of Ariat International agrees. “For our Western Heritage collection, we’ve taken a traditional, medium-round–toe cowboy boot and added technology to make it comfortable and flexible,” he says. Again, look for a retro theme. “Retro in women’s boots is strong going forward,” says Justin’s Pearce. “The whole palette is available with multilayered inlays. In men’s boots, you’ll see a retro, square toe.” And for women, time to have fun! Lucchese Boot is offering boots in red, pink, purple, and denim blue. Or walk on the wild side with Ariat’s “Fat Baby,” a bright ostrich-print cowboy-hybrid boot with a thick, cleated outsole and short top.

Hats. Traditional, good-quality fur felt hats remain the gold standard in Western headwear. But for a softer Western look, go with raffia (natural straw) in summer, and a small-brimmed wool-felt hat in cooler months. (Stuff a wool-felt hat into your suitcase, and it’ll bounce back to its original shape, notes Chip Alexander of Bailey Hat Company.) You’ll find such options as wire-edged brims (for custom shaping), chin cords (for stability), and ear flaps (for winter warmth).

Belts. Retro again! You’ll fit right in with a rusty iron concho look, especially if you’re a barrel racer or roper. Silver conchos with smaller silver studs remain trendy, both in and out of the show pen. Bleached-white rawhide looks have shifted to a more natural-color rawhide. You also can’t go wrong with traditional tooling, such as basketweave.

Western Outerwear
This winter, look for these functional Western outerwear features to stay warm and dry. Then peruse the Web sites listed in the sources on page 36 to find the perfect style for you.

Fabric. Look for fabrics designed for warmth and breathability, such as cotton, leather, wool, wool shearling, and down. Reasonably priced and comfortable, they have an authentic Western look and feel. But they’re relatively heavier in weight and bulk than synthetics, and tend to absorb moisture. “Natural materials gain weight and lose efficiency when wet,” says Don West of Have Saddle-Will Travel. “Synthetics, such as Cordura Supplex nylon, have the look and feel of cotton, but are tough as nails and have no weight.” On the down side, you may balk at the cost of some high-performance synthetics, or you may feel a manmade fabric doesn’t suit your outdoorsy Western image.

Insulation. If you need protection from cold, make insulation a priority. Again, you can choose natural or synthetic fibers. Goose or duck down is the ultimate insulator for dry or dry-and-windy conditions, note industry experts, because the feather plumes lock together to block out wind.

In wet weather, look for water-resistant down garments, as down loses its loft when it gets wet–or go with a synthetic. (“Loft” is an industry term that refers to an insulator’s ability to trap dead air space for warmth. Note that the fiber itself doesn’t keep you warm, but how well that fiber traps dead air.)

Western outerwear is designed to keep you warm and dry, even in harsh conditions. |

Effective synthetic insulation found in Western garments includes Polarfleece (a polyester fleece), Thin-sulate (a polyester/olefin blend of tiny microfibers), and Lamilite (used in high-tech sleeping bags). Holofil (a hollow synthetic fiber from Du Pont) is considered the insulator of choice for those on a budget.

Water repellency. Penny-pinching cowboys often rely on plastic slickers or dusters to stay dry. However, plastic doesn’t allow body moisture to evaporate. Better are waterproof fabrics, such as Classic Cover-Ups’ Gore Tex, Walls Industries’ Ultrex, and Have Saddle-Will Travel’s Ultra Fab. Or, you might be able to get by with a less expensive water-repellent fabric instead, such as Australian oilskin, waxed canvas, oiled leather, or a natural fabric treated with a patented product known as Durable Water Repellent.

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