October brought us the 40th installment of the Cattle Baron’s Ball, a charity gala that gives Dallas folk an excuse to spend gobs of money to dress like they don’t. The evening is Western-themed—boots, denim, hats—and it’s an odd quirk that one of the most glittering events of the year actually requires downshifting your wardrobe. That’s how fancified our city is. If you want to make a night special, don’t wear stilettos.
Dallas has a tangled relationship with the cowboy look. We pride ourselves on being cosmopolitan, a spot of sophistication in a state of yeehaw. Fort Worth embraces its cowtown roots, and real-life ranchers strut around in Wranglers and Stetsons, the kind of clothes you wear to get in the muck. But over here in the banking and real-estate mecca of Big D, our clothes suggest the opposite: that our feet never touch mud.
Of course, that’s not how the world sees us. I grew up during the reign of Dallas, which forever branded us as oil magnates wearing 10-gallon hats (more of a Houston thing). When people found out my hometown, they asked the weirdest questions: “Where’s your cowboy hat? Do you ride a horse to school?” It stung to be a punch line, and I pushed back against those stereotypes. Hated anything with twang. Hated country music.
But in time I found moderation and the Old ’97s, and two pairs of cowboy boots now reside in my closet. I wear them with dresses, the cutesy cowgirl routine. But what strikes me about Dallas women is how many other types of boots are on display. English riding boots over jeans is like a requirement on McKinney Avenue. People still wear Uggs. (Did anything ever say “not a Dallas shoe” like sheepskin insulation?) The Neiman Marcus shoe department is a candy counter of designer boots with heels that would make a cowgirl spit beer.
What city slickers like me can forget is that Western wear is not a costume. It’s a uniform for the hard work that made our stare habitable.
To don the Western look in our city now is to brand yourself as nonconformist. Cool kids have been wearing Western snap shirts for a decade, which give them a whiff of Johnny Cash.
Owner Heath Calhoun channels the high-class outlaw spirit at Cowboy Cool, a store in the West Village that’s like Western wear for Marc Jacobs fans. The boot collection from Stallion and JB Hill, both handmade in El Paso, is so impressive that Axl Rose bought five pairs. The store walls are lined with photos of famous customers: Kid Rock, Pat Green, Ellen DeGeneres. The boots are pricey, running from $300 to $11,000 (alligator belly skin is in short supply, apparently).
“There’s a lot of cheap Western stores out there already,” Calhoun says. “The people who come to us are individualists.”
Individualism can be a tricky sell, especially in Dallas, where girls flock to Uptown wearing the same Tory Burch flip-flops, the same Louis Vuitton handbags. It’s easier to hide in the shadows of luxury logos and accepted trends. It’s scary to be an original.
One afternoon, I stopped by Wild Bill’s in the West End. I chatted with the woman behind the counter, Kali, who grew up on a Texas dairy farm. She told me how much she loved cows, how their twitching noses are like little pups.
What city slickers like me can forget is that Western wear is not a costume. It’s a uniform for the hard work that made our state habitable, turned unforgiving prairie land into an urban playground where I dart around in wedge heels. In fact, what I said about Dallas folk not wearing cowboy gear is wrong. Hispanic men in my neighborhood wear it all the time. Their jobs require the force field of tough leather and sun protection.
I began looking for my own hat at Wild Bill’s, when a cute, shy cowboy named Russ sidled up to ask if I needed help. He was wearing Wranglers and a white straw hat.
“Do you wear that when you’re not working?” I asked, thinking I would bust him for dressing up for the tourists.
“I do,” he said. “Nobody notices in Fort Worth. But I do get stares on McKinney Avenue.”
“I like that you wear that on McKinney,” I said.
“You do?” he asked, and blushed.
“Hell, yeah,” I said, and if I had been wearing a hat, I would have tipped it to him. I wish more of us had the guts to stand out in a crowd. That’s a real cowboy.
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