The Western Wares exhibition shows the history of the style

See where the influence of Western style began and manifested in the Western goods exposure.

The West is not just a geographical location; it is a culture and a way of life that has inspired generations of artists and creators. The new exhibit at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Western goods, features this work and how “designs with roots on the line” have made their way across fashion, pop culture, the automotive industry, and more. From February 11 until May 1, the work of Loy Bowlin, Nudie Cohn and Dolores Gonzales, among others, will highlight the influence and history of our Western style.

The collection was carefully curated by Nathan Jones and Samantha Schafer, who were delighted to share a diverse display of designers and products, including not only clothing, but also photography, ceramics, textiles, homewares, furniture and even a set of dentures. “We wanted to bring in everyday items and make sure we could address a diversity of experiences with Western design,” Jones says.

Felix Cooper (posed). Devere Helfrich, 1946, security film negative.

Mountain Man Seth Kinman in a bear chair. Mathew B. Brady, circa 1875, business card.

Posed Man, Woman and two children all wearing Indian costume. Pruddan, circa 1900, cabinet photograph.

Men who live and work in the outdoors can tell you how Stetson hats have served them. Bogard Clothing Co., circa 1930, advertising card.

Back cover, Sonoita rodeo program. Unknown, 1957, smooth paper.

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About half of the exhibit is made up of photographs taken from the museum’s strong archival holdings. The photos feature old advertisements, portraits of people and families wearing western clothes, and real people wearing real western-style clothes in their daily lives. “It’s really fun to see these different rodeo stars or even just the rodeo visitors in their western clothes, says Schafer. “It reminds me of modern street fashion photography, so you have these guys playing cards behind the bleachers between rodeo events or kids whose parents are competing, so they’re hanging out in the back of the trailer, just that kind of a more streetwear approach to everyday people who wear these things in their lives.

Acee Blue Eagle Pitcher and Tumblers, 1959 with table runner.

Visit card. Larry & Irene Thomas Square & Western Shop, circa 1960, card stock.

Selected objects from Western Ware.

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The automotive industry and how the West has influenced it is an unexpected piece of the exhibit. Why did Ford have vehicles named Mustang and Bronco? “In the automotive realm, when you look at American car brands, they mostly have Western names, and while not all of them lean into Western designs, there’s still a borrowing of that mystique to automotive industry,” says Jones.

Jones’ favorite piece in the exhibit is Loy Bowlin’s dentures. Bowlin is an underdog artist from Mississippi who covered Glen Campbell’s song, Rhinestone Cowboy, to heart. He’s adorned his designs, clothes, and even his home with sequins, rhinestones, and more. “He was an older man and he had dentures, so he had his dentist drill some holes in his dentures, so he could apply rhinestones to them,” Jones says. “It really speaks to the broader relevance outside of the geographic west for western materials, western design, and how people use it to really identify and identify with their own lifestyle so strongly. I really like this story and [Bowlin] specifically… [is] just a pure expression of what it means to be immersed in western design [and] fashion.”

Patio dress, 1950s. Dolores Resort Wear.

Terrace dress [detail]1950s. Dolores Resort Wear.

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Schafer’s favorite items are patio dresses by Dolores Gonzales. She not only loves the style, but also how it highlights that Western clothing is not just European or Euro-centric. “It’s also heavily influenced and created by Hispanic and Indigenous influences, and patio dresses are like the perfect melting pot of that, like European, Hispanic, and Indigenous design rolled into one thing,” says Schafer.

After finalizing the exhibition, the two curators were happy to learn how many of the artists and artisans featured were immigrants. “I don’t think I’ve realized how many designers … who get involved in Western design are immigrants or come from other cultures,” Jones says. Many of these designers, creators and tailors, like Nathan Turk, Nudie Cohn, Bernard “Rodeo Ben” Lichtenstein and Dolores Gonzales, were not born in the West.

Embroidered shirt and slit skirt, 1940s.

Charro Costume, c. 1930. Manufacturer unknown.

Selected Western Ware objects, left to right. Hall chair and cup holder, Shoshone Furniture Company. Courtesy of Peter Mettler. Nez Perce beaded bag.

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They were born in places all over the world but are connected to the western world through their work. “[Couturier Manuel Cuevas] ‘Manuel’ studied with Nudie, then bought machines from Turk when he went out of business, and the same embroidery team worked with Nudie and then with Manuel,” says Schafer. “It’s like there’s a collective pool, and it doesn’t matter what label they’re under, but the same person will probably have worked on items for different brands. Everything is very interconnected when you start digging. Their creativity and work laid the foundation for today’s western style, cementing its place in today’s mainstream fashion.

The visitors of Western goods The exhibition can learn more about the roots of these magnificent designs, as well as the Western influence in multiple creative fields. The inspiring exhibit is open through May 1 at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.


To learn more about this exhibit, visit the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum website.

Photography: (All images) courtesy of Carla C. Cain, via National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum

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