The new show Dress Codes at the Autry in L.A. offers a fun and subversive look at what clothes say about our Western identities.
What stories do clothes tell? What do a pair of blue jeans or a plaid shirt say about the wearer and their identity? These are some of the questions posed by the exhibition Dress Codes, on view through January 8, 2023 at Los Angeles’ Autry Museum of the American West.
Through six icons of Western style—blue jeans, the plaid shirt, the fringed leather jacket, the aloha shirt, the cowboy boot, and the China Poblana dress—and featuring more than 150 objects, the show digs into the histories of key garments and their connections to ideas of Western identity, tradition, individual freedom, hybridity, and reinvention.
The exhibition kicks off with a section on the ubiquitous blue jean, an article of clothing that probably evokes the American West more than any other garment. While denim can be found everywhere around the world today, its roots are in the West. “The history of jeans weaves together stories of miners, cowboys, dude ranches, and fashion rebels, as well as struggles for racial equality and sexual freedom,” according to press materials for the exhibition. “Women in the Western United States drove a fashion revolution by wearing jeans borrowed from brothers, boyfriends, and husbands.”
Can’t Bust ’Em jeans recovered from a mine in Goldfield, Nevada, circa 1890. Donated by Jeffrey Spielberg. Autry Museum; 2011.77.6
The Plaid Shirt
“Popular with lumberjacks, farmers, longshoremen, sportsmen, and ranchers, the colorful wool plaid shirt became an icon of rugged strength, outdoor lifestyles, and Western individuality. … Plaid wool shirts like Pendletons became the work shirt of choice for longshoremen and dock workers on the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach; Mexican American and African American youths wore plaid cruising the streets of L.A. as part of a lowrider aesthetic; and on the coast, surfers put on plaid shirts as part of the surfer style.”
Board shirt made by Pendleton Woolen Mills, Oregon, 1950s–early 1960s. Autry Museum; T2019-69-3
A symbol of the long history of exchange between Hawai’i and California and the American West, “from its earliest beginnings, aloha attire blended ideas and designs from Indigenous and immigrant cultures to connect island residents and visitors to Hawai‘i. … During the 1940s and through the 1950s, wartime restrictions on imports and exports shifted the market for aloha shirts from tourists to local island communities and American soldiers stationed in Hawai‘i eager for a souvenir of their posting.”
Aloha shirt given to President Harry S. Truman by Duke Kahanamoku, 1950. Courtesy Harry S. Truman National Historic Site
The Fringed Leather Jacket
One of the original fashion innovations of the early West, the fringed leather jacket combines “a Native style of adornment with fashionable European coat styles [and] first appeared in regions and among people who straddled Native and European worlds. … By the late 19th century, popular forms of mass culture, such as dime novels, Wild West shows, and film, made the fringed jacket inseparable from the mythology of the American West and rugged individualism on the frontier. …. And while Western fringe comes and goes as part of celebrity and high fashion, fringe still remains an important form of artistic expression, performance, and tradition for many Native American groups.”
Denim Jordache jacket with custom additions worn by writer, rodeo marshal, and LGBTQ activist Patricia Nell Warren. Donated by Patricia Nell Warren. Autry Museum; 2006.68.1
The Cowboy Boot
“Like many Western fashions, cowboy boots started as workwear. Beginning in the mid-1870s, cowboys shifted from wearing generic working-men’s boots to a narrower boot with a taller heel designed to accommodate horseback riding. Innovation in color and design soon followed, and by the 1930s, the cowboy boot had become a canvas for adornment, as actors and country-western performers, male and female, brought cowboy style to a global audience.”
Cowboy boots worn by Gene Autry, mid-20th century. Maker: Lucchese Boot Company. Donated by Mr. and Mrs. Gene Autry. Autry Museum; 91.221.137
The imaginative power of the Mexican and Mexican American dress style known as China Poblana begin with the name: “China (‘female servant’) and Poblana (‘of Puebla’) [reflecting] the outfit’s origins in a combination of legends, Mexico’s Indigenous and colonial history of enslavement, revolutionary politics, and nation building. Legends inspired by the 17th-century mystic Catarina de San Juan, and styles of dress worn by 18th-century indigenous and multiracial working women, coalesced during the Mexican Revolution into the figure of the China Poblana. Today, the China Poblana dress lives on in dance and musical celebrations of Mexican culture and in dresses created by Indigenous women past and present.”
“What we wear is often deeply personal and individualistic, but sometimes fashion is also used to demonstrate a belonging to a community or to express tradition or cultural identity,” says Autry chief curator Carolyn Brucken, who curated both Dress Codes and China Poblana. “The story of the China Poblana … reflects the broader themes of both exhibitions: that clothing can be imbued with meaning and history and stir something personal in the wearer.”
China Poblana dance ensemble. Collected in Mexico, circa 1935. Autry Museum; 2010.G.72–.73
For more information, visit theautry.org.
Featured image: Whittier Boulevard Regulars, April 15, 1979. Photo by Dean Musgrove/Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library
Photography: (All images) courtesy the Autry Museum of the American West