What do you think of when you think of the American West?
Sprawling desert vistas, tense gunfights, twanging guitars and good, bad and ugly cowboys have set the standard for the popular perception of the West. But the American West hasn’t necessarily remained wild. Cattle rustling and train robberies aside, the ideals, aesthetics and mythology of the West are still hugely prevalent in modern culture.
From music to film to fashion, modern culture is full of plenty of hangovers from the American West. In this article, we dive headfirst into the cultural phenomenon that gave us gruff Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood, iconic Stetson hats, a number of groundbreaking tv series’ and a seriously terrible Will Smith film.
Creating the myth of the West
The mythology of the American West has quickly become a slice of modern American folklore. Rife with heroic tales of lawmen and outlaws, love stories and hostage rescues, the myth of the American West actually began when the Wild West was still in full swing.
It was bison hunter and army scout Buffalo Bill who helped to promote the image of the Wild West with his travelling shows that put almost everything we now associate with the period centre stage, sadly there weren’t any rhinestone suits here. Animal shows, battle re-enactments, sharpshooting and lasso tricks were all on the cards. It wasn’t quite ‘A Fistful Of Dollars’, but Bill’s shows were popular enough to land him hundreds of performances in Europe during the late 1800s - Queen Victoria herself was a big fan.
Western fever was rising at the turn of the 20th century, and the first western film, The Great Train Robbery, was released in 1903 and seen as a groundbreaking piece of cinema. With its ten-gallon-hat-wearing outlaws and iconic final scene giving audiences an insight into the heydey of an Old West that was slowly fading out of existence.
Height of popularity
The legacy of the American West thrived in US culture throughout the early 20th century but it became truly iconic in the years following the Second World War. The 50s and 60s birthed plenty of groundbreaking westerns like The Searchers and Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name Trilogy, of course, there were some less groundbreaking westerns too - we’re looking at you Billy The Kid Versus Dracula. With Rawhide and Bonanza taking television by storm and Marty Robbins crooning his Gunfighter Ballads on the radio, it was impossible to escape the legend of the American West.
Of course, with the ideas of the American West at the forefront of almost all popular culture, it trickled down into fashion. The biggest item of clothing to come out of the American West is, indisputably, jeans. Originally designed for hard working, hard living cowboys, the first pair of jeans were patented in 1873 by tailor Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss. For years, jeans were a staple of the Western style, but didn’t gain any substantial popularity outside of cowboys, prospectors and lumberjacks until the 1950s, where they coincided with the explosion in Old West cultural revival.
The contemporary West
By the 70s, the cultural relevance of the American West had plummeted. There had been far too many cowboy flicks, hundreds of hours of television and one too many Rhinestone Cowboys riding into the star-spangled Rodeo that was the singles chart. For years, film, television and music audiences looked elsewhere for their escapist media - they wanted Star Wars, not Stagecoach.
It might have looked as though the American West was dead in the eyes of popular culture, but that just wasn’t the case. Films such as 1998’s The Big Lebowski may not have been a western in the traditional sense - we don’t imagine that you could pick up a white russian in the saloon - but it relished in a distinctly ‘Old West’ style. From having western veteran Sam Elliott play a stranger in a bowling alley, to lead character Jeffrey ‘The Dude’ Lebowski rocking a classic Pendleton sweater - a brand filled with western heritage, stocked here at Archie Foal - films like the Big Lebowski helped to bring western ideas and aesthetics into contemporary culture.
Companies realised that, once again, the West could be the best and started pushing out western-inspired media and fashion that was much more suited to a younger, fresher audience that’d never be interested in a badly acted John Wayne romp - that doesn’t mean that True Grit isn’t excellent.
Once again, the American West is huge in modern popular culture. Blockbuster smashes Django: Unchained and The Revenant, more arty productions like Bone Tomahawk, groundbreaking tv series like Breaking Bad and musical masterpiece ‘Family Don’t Matter’ by Young Thug have all taken inspiration from the legacy of the American West and succeeded hugely in modern culture.
It didn’t take long for fashion to catch on. Whether it’s in the sometimes ridiculous runway looks from the likes of Versace and Dior or the modern upgrades given to true western heritage brands like Stetson and Colchester Rubber who have been producing western fashion since the late 1800s.
Whatever form it may take, the legacy of the Old West is certainly influencing modern culture today and it only looks like its going to continue growing. With more films, music and even a video game with a multi-million dollar budget and over 1000 people working on it, it doesn’t look like the legacy of the American West will be losing its grasp on modern popular culture any time soon.