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One of the most common questions asked by first time dude ranch vacationers is, “What do I wear at a dude ranch?”   Naturally, this will depend on factors such as season, climate, geography, intended recreational events, etc. But there are some basics that anyone who is planning to attend a dude ranch should know. To quote my favorite cowboy John Wayne, “A man’s got to have a code, a creed to live by.”  So, shouldn’t a man, or a cowboy in particular, also have dress codes that he lives by?


Cowboy Hat, horse, and cowboy

Anyone who knows cowboys understands that the cliche cowboy look that hollywood and the larger media perpetually glamorizes is in fact based mostly on function, not fashion. Yes, chaps are fun for all sorts of reasons. But folks, those leather chap frills and the accompanying chap-induced protruding derriere are not just for thrills. For the purpose of this blog, and for those seeking more complete and accurate cowboy wardrobing, I have broken down the cowboy look into four categories; beginner cowboy wardrobing, intermediate cowboy wardrobing , advanced cowboy wardrobing, and extreme cowboy wardrobe thrill seeker. In each category I have assumed that the individual is stylizing a fashion statement not for the sake of appearances.  The cowboy wardrober is participating in a verifiable cowboy activity such as horse back riding, cattle roping, arena work, spitting tobacco and telling cowboy yarns, dude ranching, or cowboy roundups (this means bringing in the cows from pasture and is different from a round-up when cowboys are gathering at the honky-tonk).

  1. The Beginner cowboy wardrober

I have heard vacationers referred to as “discerning out – of – towners”.  But to a dude ranch employee, customers typically are visibly “discerned  out – of – towners”   Perhaps nothing marks you as an out of towner or beginner cowboy wardrober more than what you wear. While we anticipate that many guests enjoy the opportunity to dress in western garb, not everyone embraces the dress code. The typical beginner can be expected to dress for comfort and or style, rather than function.  The beginner cowboy wardrober is prone to some classic cowboy social dress faux-pas. For example, the beginner:

  • Wears at least one item of city garb. By city garb I mean anything that serves more than a basic function. It is glamorous, or is moisture sensative. A beginner cowboy wardrober might wear expensive watches and sunglasses. A dead give-away to a beginner is that he / she is wearing ANYTHING white. Office work attire such as dress slacks or dress shoes are a red-flag indicator of the beginner that should bring the wannabe cowboy to a point of embarrassing humiliation.
  • Wears shorts and open toed shoes  – really?   Watch out for that cactus!
  • Wears ANYTHING with rhinestones, crosses, or possessing a lot of graphic detail.


cowboy hat

The cowboy hat, a singular icon for cowboy attire

  1. The Intermediate cowboy wardrober

To qualify as an intermediate cowboy wardrober, you would be expected to recognize and own at least some of a cowboy’s wardrobe essentials, such as jeans, boots, plaid shirts, gloves, belts, large belt buckles (worthy of its own post entirely), and hats. But what marks one as an intermediate is the wear and tear of their cowboy wardrobe. Folks, cowboys are hard working people who go out each day and get dirty, sweaty, and sun burned. If your light colored plaid shirt has not been promoted to favorite off-brown plaid shirt, then you can bet someone will notice. Here’s the throwdown:

  • Intermediate cowboy wardrobers wear typical cowboy garb at least 50% of the time.
  • May possess, or at least has a beginners understanding of the function of cowboy garb and tools. So basically, you know what chaps are actually meant for, you know one end of a lasso from the other, and you wear your plaid shirts outside of vacation time.
  • Your apparel and tools don’t lack the old, trusty, worn out virtue that is the hallmark of a cowboys possessions. Folks, real cowboys aren’t shiny.
  • You are color coordinated. Sorry Dad!  (editor’s note from Dad –  I beg to differ in my humble opinion here.  A true cowboy soul will often intentionally ignore classic color pairings as an outer expression of the inner rebellious and self defining cowboy spirit.   A true cowboy fashion statement  can be based on a “don’t give a damn” attitude…..)


  1. Advanced cowboy wardrobing

If the way of the cowboy is hard work and practicality, then it only makes sense that a cowboy would change out of his work clothes and put on a regular cotton t-shirt and blue jeans at a point of leisure. At some point, the boots and spurs need to come off! But even in casual apparel, there are several things that mark a true cowboy.

  • Skin that is tanned from the sun (ain’t no hiding that you are a redneck!)
  • Callouses, especially on the hands.
  • A tan line around the wrist, indicative of wearing gloves for an extended period of time.
  • Walk like a cowboy. The absence and or presence of boots and spurs seems to make little difference in the natural swagger of a cowboy.   Even when the spurs are off, there is a heel-first slide across the floor to simulate the whirling zzing of a rotating spur as you scoot across the kitchen linoleum. Then of course, there is the inevitable impact on the cowboy gate that results from long days sitting on a hard saddle while splayed over a full-sized riding horse….
  1. Extreme cowboy wardrobing “thrill seekers”

This final category is mentioned here with fear and trepidation for those who hope to pursue cowboy wardrobing to olympic standards. Please read the disclaimers to follow.

Cowboy wardrobing thrill seekers will accessorize with abundant visible firearms and cutting implements.

Thrill seeker cowboy wardrobers will talk with a low gravel rasping from the vocal chords that speaks to long tenures of substance use indiscretions ” primarily coffee, alcohol and tobacco are the culprits. The previously listed order does not reflect the relative quantified use of each of the three indiscretions!

The advanced cowboy wardrobing “thrill seeker” will almost always be sporting a prominently displayed scar or physical impairment. A missing body part is the ultimate example from this category, but acceptable substitutes include cheek scars, nose scars, or twitching trigger fingers.

Advanced cowboy wardrobing thrill seekers will also speak with unfeigned, forthright, and honest candor. Usually, this is done with the least number of words in a sentence and with vocabulary limited to two syllables.

I am not the first to share insights into authentic cowboy fashion or even how contemporary fashion authorities think a cowboy should really be dressed. In the recent past, GQ magazine interviewed the actor Michael Keaton, and he shared his thoughts about how to dress like a cowboy. He approached the cowboy look with a very watered down, street style interpretation. Michael seemed to have no intention of owning the complete or authentic cowboy look. He laid out how to dress like a cowboy like this:

  1. Don’t wear denim that matches.
  2. Always make sure that your outfit includes layers of texture and color
  3. Don’t go more than 50% cowboy on your accessories.

He summarized his approach with this phrase, “Black boots and a piece of edgy jewelry will mix up the vibe in just the right way.”

Personally, I don’t know of a single cowboy who would use the word “vibe”, to describe his personal style, or one who would accessorize outside the demands of immediate need and function. In fact, I know very few cowboys who would give a fraction of that much forethought to their apparel, if any. If you remember nothing else about how a cowboy dresses, remember this : function, not fashion.

On the topic of dressing “cowboy”, and according to wikihow, there are several wardrobe essentials for anyone who wants to pass as a legitimate cowboy. Yes, the authentic contemporary cowboy will of course first check the internet for cutting edge cowboy fashion tips and trends prior to saddling up for work. The internet essentials are:

  • Blue jeans
  • Plaid, long sleeved, button down shirts
  • Leather boots
  • A cowboy hat
  • Chaps
  • A leather duster (basically, a long leather coat)
  • A bandana
  • spurs

They also suggest that if you want to be taken seriously as a cowboy, you should include these other elements to your look:

  • Facial hair! Grow a beard or a mustache, or both. The hairier the better
  • Wear a giant belt and an even bigger belt buckle, because that is the only place on a cowboy where allowances can be made in the name of fashion.   (There is an element of truth to the need for substantial belt leather. It requires a belt of significant girth to bear the mass of that .45 magnum revolver slung low from the hip!)

There are a few other items that a cowboy may sport, such as guns, holsters, knives, wild rags, and horse tack. But your typical dude ranch vacationer is not expected to, and should not attempt to sport this restricted list of specialty cowboy accessories without proper training, permitting, and certification by the committee for extreme cowboy wardrobe thrill seeking.

One of my favorite things about a cowboy is that they tend to have a very salt of the earth feel about them that extends beyond the wardrobe selection. Their look and their spirit is something timeless. Unfortunately, we may have overly romanticized the role of a cowboy appearance over the years. Being a cowboy is not really about what you wear, even though when it’s done right, it tends to look pretty darn good. Ultimately, being a cowboy is about your job and your chosen lifestyle. And if a cowboy is doing his job the right way, he’ll be worn and sun tanned like his tack, he’ll probably smell, and maybe even look, alarmingly, similar to his horse, and won’t care about making a fashion statement.  I offer my late river compadre John “turbo” Turbovsky as an example of a good cowboy.  Even when dressed in river gear and sans the cowboy hat, he lived and looked cowboy.

white water rafting cowboy

Although dressed in rafting gear, John “Turbo” epitomizes a true cowboy

Maybe some cowboys do have a creed for how they dress and look, but folks, the real ones will have creeds for how they work and how they behave. So, all of you beginner cowboy wardrobers making reservations at the Marble Mountain Dude Ranch, bring your boots, your denim jeans, your plaid shirt, and a good cowboy hat. If you really want to impress us at the ranch, you should also find that inner cowboy in you and plan on sporting that wardrobe in good company, under majestic skys, with clean mountain air, and prepare to cover those new duds in horse hair, trail dust, and honest sweat.    See you here cowboys!

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