Louis Vuitton’s latest collection was a tribute to cowboy aesthetics, however the legacy of the Western frontier runs deep in the history of fashion and youth culture.
As soon as the attendees of the Louis Vuitton Men’s Fall-Winter ‘24 show started to take their seats at the Jardins d'Acclimatation in Paris it was clear that the French maison’s new collection would nod to Americana. A massive backdrop of canyons saluted the first model on the catwalk and his silky cravat, cowskin boots and frailed, embroidered coat. Cowboy hats, shiny buckles and tassel jackets all followed, offering the fashion house new creative director Pharrell Williams’ personal take on the Western look.
As this year we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More – one of the seminal staples of Spaghetti Western cinema – we cannot help but notice how the genre has kept fuelling our popular iconography, constantly inspiring designers and trends, from the streets to the catwalks.
Although American traditional and work clothing has more or less always represented, from the States to Japan, a fascination for teenagers and young rebels alike since the aftermath of World War II, it was indeed the Italian take on Western cinema to truly popularise said fashion.
Details from the Louis Vuitton FW 24 show by Pharrell Williams.
Spaghetti Western flicks offered an update of your classic US-made cowboys and indians movies, enriching their classic storylines with a new sensitivity, dripping in the eroticism, violence and politics that distinguished the 1960s European counterculture.
Similarly, their soundtracks fused together the genre’s tradition with contemporary instruments and sonic attitudes, resulting in a feast of twangy surf riffs and rock ‘n roll tremolos which further turned on youth culture to these strange, gore yet undeniably cool Italian films.
As Leone’s Dollar Trilogy was grossing at the box office, bands and pop singers first began to borrow their outfits from the cowboy closet, including American psychedelic legends The Charlatans as well as Italians I Corvi and even CAM Sugar’s very own Caterina Caselli for the artwork of ‘Tutto Nero’, her legendary take on The Rolling Stones ‘Paint It Black’. Perhaps also courtesy of the success of Midnight Cowboy, in no time also The Byrds began to include Country and Honky Tonk elements in their sound and wardrobe with the seminal album Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968), and so did a year later Quicksilver Messenger Service retreating to the iconography of an alcyon American past made of prairies and horse rides with their artwork for Happy Trails (1969). Lee Hazlewood even imagined his self-imposed exile to Sweden as an update on the mythology of the American lonesome cowboy, titling one of his cult film Cowboy in Sweden. “Hey cowboy, where did you get the clothes you wear? Hey cowboy, where did you get the funny hair?” sang Scandi chanteuse Nina Lizell on the soundtrack album.
By the end of the 1960s cowboy fashion and culture had spread all across Europe, from Italy to Sweden.
It is indeed from this time of American culture that draws inspiration Asteroid City, the latest effort by Wes Anderson, an old friend of CAM having featured Ennio Morricone’s ‘L’Ultima Volta’ in the score of The French Dispatch.
We asked Marta Franceschini, fashion historian and curator who worked on the 2022 instant classic exhibition Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear held at London Victoria & Albert Museum, the reasons behind the never-ending appeal of the cowboy look.
"The influence is certainly not 'new'. Several designers have included references to the Western imagery in their work, and often have done so critically. I'm thinking of Kenzo in 1986: an act of appropriation of a problematic heritage, subversive because it looked at a world divided between winners and losers, good guys and bad guys. Kenzo glamourised it, turned it into style, emptying its symbols of their political significance. The modality is similar to that which so many creators have employed by drawing inspiration from various elsewheres – territories known by name but perhaps never visited, such as China, India, Japan. Said methodology is close to the way Spaghetti Westerns come across: the European or Italian version of a U.S. genre, celebrating and demythologising it at the same time."
Looking beyond Pharrell’s tribute to cowboy culture, many brands since the late 1970s have found inspiration in the style. Most notably, Thierry Mugler’s 1992 collection was among the first to envision a modern, empowered cowgirl, equally ready for a gritty Hells Angels dive bar and a queer club. Vuitton itself had already tapped on the theme when the former and late creative director Virgil Abloh envisioned Afro cowboys as part of the maison FW ‘21 collection. Certainly a reference point for Williams’ recent designs.
Back a couple of years only, Maison Margiela collaborated with John Galliano to their very own celebration of cowboy fashion, while in 2017 Raf Simons embarked on a journey across the dresscodes and fabrics of Americana, using denim, satin cowboy shirts and even touching upon Hamish culture. The following year Maria Grazia Chiuri’s first collection for Dior similarly explored the Western frontier, down to Mexico, with a collection that once again subtly suggests how updating the canons of the wild, wild West is something that has always run in the blood of Italian creatives.
Even before the haute couture take on the style, Ukrainian-born American fashion designer Nudie Cohn made a name for himself among 1970s American rock stars with his rhinestone-covered, opulently embroidered suits that became a hallmark of the cowboy fashion revival in the Western jet-set, as witnessed by the epoch defining portraits of Gram Parsons.
From left to right: The Ralph Lauren 1979 campaign promoting a cowboy fashion revival; Nudie Cohn with Gram Parson, both wearing the designer's Western-inspired suits.
By the end of the decade Ralph Lauren became one of the first fashion houses to promote an explicit comeback of the style, tapping into the craze for sturdy, bonafide American clothing that was spreading across Japan also courtesy of pivotal publications such as the Whole Earth Catalog-inspired Made in USA and the newborn Popeye – Magazine for City Boys. The endorsement of the trend from such a staple of Preppy style snowballed a new life for cowboy garments, turning by the mid-1980s the Italian youth cluster of Paninari onto an urban revisitation of ranch life which saw the absurd combination of Camperos or Sonora boots, El Charro belts and cowboy hats with Stone Island anoraks and Armani denim.
Fifty years on, the cowboy look keeps fuelling the imagination and look of countless artists from genres as varied as nu-psych, rap and hyperpop. Not only we have underground heroes like Black Lips, Allah Las, Night Beats, Orville Peck and Khruangbin absorbing said cinematic world in their musical identity, but also Grammy-winner Lil Nas X or Italian pop sensation Elettra Lamborghini subverting the canons of the look, offering a queer-oriented take on its century-old etiquette. Their styling brings to mind the provocative and playful. use of cowboy or gaucho-style leather chaps among the LGBTQ+ communities as well as among the fetish-loving Warholian biker gangs.
From left to right: Nadia Lee Cohen in the Paris Texas FW 21 campaign; Japanese poster for The Legend of Frenchie King, 1971.
“Fashion is a discipline that lends itself to questioning canons and overturning them. The more recognisable the symbols, the easier it seems to translate them into dress language and betray their meaning: what if what is associated with a local machismo is worn by female models? If clothes and accessories that refer to a specific group of people, and are born for action, are transformed into uniforms of luxury? What if, again, a creative director with a specific background transports them to a different land, let's say Paris, and parades them accompanied by the voice of the Native Voices of Resistance choir? The theme doesn't seem to pose a problem in terms of cultural appropriation, because the history of the victors is increasingly being challenged,” explains Franceshini.
“We are in a moment of rightful reevaluation of the stories and consequences that the 'conquest' of the West brought for different populations, and I think the desire to rebalance historiography is emerging in the more exposed territories of popular culture, in cinema as well as in fashion.”
Arizona Colt, German film poster, 1966.
Opening image: Pharrell Williams at the Louis Vuitton FW 24 show, Paris.