Some Western fashion companies create clothes for rhinestone cowboys or urban wannabes. But not Wrangler.
Since 1947, Wrangler has been catering to the needs of working cowboys and has racked up more firsts in the Western fashion industry than any other label. You might think a company that caters so strongly to the Western lifestyle would be located smack-dab in the heart of the West. Not so. Wrangler calls Greensboro, North Carolina home.
Blue Bell labeling tag from 1949
Add another bit of irony to the history of Wrangler's phenomenal growth. It was a flashy 47-year-old Philadelphia tailor, Rodeo Ben (and a couple of rodeo cowboys), who helped the company earn its reputation for authenticity in clothes loved by real working cowboys.
In 1947, Wrangler (then called Blue Bell) was noted as a stable company that turned out dependable dungarees and work overalls for working class folks. Denim jeans at that time were all made in a very boxy shape with a button front closure. The legs were baggy. The waist was low. The body of the jeans had no shape. It wasn't much of a look for cowboys who needed jeans that would help them do their job in the corral or the performance arena. What Blue Bell wanted from Rodeo Ben was a pair of authentic cowboy cut jeans suitable for riding a horse, a bull or any other critter a cowboy might tackle in the rodeo arena or the ranch corral. Comfort was to be the key for these Western-cut jeans for the mass market.
Rodeo Ben rose to the occasion, even though such functional workaday garb was quite out of character for him. He had, after all, cut his own reputation by designing sequin-studded and embroidered clothes for popular rodeo stars and such notable Western legends as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.
Rodeo great Jim Shoulders is quoted in the book, Way Out West as saying, “Even before I went to rodeo in New York, I knew that anybody who had himself a Rodeo Ben suit or even a Rodeo Ben pair of britches, why, he’d been winning something. It was a big deal.”
Shoulders and Freckles Brown rest rode Ben's prototype jeans. And in 1947, after 13 variations, the 13MWZ (13 tries, men's western upper jean) was born. It was the first pair of jeans with a zipper fly, and cowboys of all persuasions loved the result.
In 100 Years of Western Wear, Tyler Beard notes, "Ben created the first pair of five pocket, straight legged fitted blue jeans targeted at rodeo cowboys. Cowboys liked the fitted appearance due to double-needled felled seams for rugged durability, flat copper rivets that would not rub on the saddle, deep front pockets for gloves or other working cowboy necessities and split double-rein- forced back pockets designed to be tool proof. The broken-twill denim process prevented the fabric from wrinkling or twisting as much when washed.”
Beard continues: "Ben also moved the ever present watch pocket from down inside the pocket well up to the waistband area, which meant a watch chain could more easily be attached to a belt loop for easy access to the time. The rise in the back end was higher so a cowboy didn't have to sit on his billfold."
1946 Blue Bell logo
The functional aspect of jeans was exceedingly important to rodeo performers. Cowboys needed a high back rise jean to keep their shirt tails in while riding. The higher rise also kept the jean from binding cowboys across their waist while they rode. They needed more seat and thigh room to work in the saddle.
They needed a smaller leg opening to protect their legs from brush while riding a horse and to protect their boots. The smaller leg opening also allows cowboys to "'stack" their jeans — a Western tradition that lets cowboys buy their jeans four inches longer than normal inseams to fit right on their boots while riding. No real working cowboy would wear "high waters,' an unflattering term reserved for jeans that are too short, and one that's also applied to "nerds" who wear their pants far too short.
They also needed more belt loops — seven — and a wide space between the front belt loops to accommodate those flashy Western belts, and the trophy buckle - a vital part of any cowboy's fashion look.
The people at Wrangler gave every cowboy at the Madison Square Garden rodeo two pairs of their new Rodeo Ben jeans, and in 1948, the company hired Shoulders — who was on his way to becoming the winningest rodeo cowboy ever — to be its spokesman in national advertisements. Years later, after he had won the All-Around World Champion Cowboy title five times, he would comment: "I have been associated with Wrangler longer than anybody in the company. I have outlived all the presidents and everybody else there.”
The Blue Bell employees drew The task of naming the new jeans and from their suggestions, the name wrangler was chosen. Rodeo Ben be. came so well known that for years his nice appeared, along with those of five champion rodeo cowboys, on all the paper tags stapled to the back pocket of Wrangler jeans.
Less well known is Rodeo Ben's other major contribution to Wrangler — the use of snaps on Western shirts instead of buttons — a design inspired by an accident Rodeo Ben witnessed while attending a rodeo. When a bull stuck his horn in a cowboy's shirt buttonhole, Rodeo Ben saw instantly such an accident couldn't happen with snaps.
While 1947 could be considered a benchmark year for Wrangler, with the introduction of the 13MWZ jean, that year also marked the beginning of a number of other firsts for the company.
In that year alone Wrangler produced:
- The first jean to have permanent size and care instructions.
- The first jean to be sold wash a one-year warranty.
- The first jean to have invaded rivets to combat scrapes and abrasions.
The next year saw two more firsts added to Wrangler's growing reputation as a company that designed clothes especially to suit the Western lifestyle.
Wrangler's first factory was opened in 1919 after merging with Blue Bell.
- The introduction of the modern day woman's jean. Placing the ripper in the front was a revolutionary design at that time. Wrangler had already pioneered its side-zippered loose fitting dungarees for women.
- The evolution of wide rear pockets. The two "W’s" stitched on the pockets stood for "Wrangler Westernwear."
Two other "firsts" that endeared the company to the public included making tapered leg denim jeans in a variety of colors to appeal to the teenagers of the 1960s, and introducing jeans in 1975 that Were virtually wrinkle and shrinkage proof.
Wrangler is also still the only company that backs its jeans with a one year Warranty that offers replacement or a refund on defective workmanship or material.
Thanks to Wranglers’ association with the rodeo world, and the believability that Shoulders and other rodeo stars added to it’s products, the company grew rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s, expanding its product offerings to include more clothing for women and children.
By the early 1960s, the company expanded to Europe, establishing factories in Belgium and Malta and sales offices in Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom. By the mid-1970s, Wrangler was the leading jeans brand in Europe, surpassing its early competitors, Levi's 501s and Lee's "Cowboy Cut.
By 1974, no self-respecting rodeo cowboy would be caught wearing anything but Wranglers. It is the first and wanly jean that's ever been endorsed by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, according to Ken Stempler, President of PRCA Properties, the promotional and marketing division of the PRCA.
Wrangler has served as the official sponsor of the PRCA since 1974, an agreement recently renegotiated to run through 1997. As the number one sponsor, Wrangler spends $9 million annually on the PRCA. It endows the PRCA Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and pays for all of the judges' training and salaries for all PRCA rodeos. The company founded the Wrangler Bullfights at selected PRCA rodeos. Wrangler is also the official rains and shirts sponsor of the American Quarter Horse Association.
Blue Bell advertisement from the 1950s
Since its introduction, the Western-cut jean hasn't changed a stitch, except for improvements in fabric technology, a slimmer cur developed six years ago (bearing the label 936DEN), and a regular fit jean labeled 946DEN.
While Rodeo Ben and his rodeo cowboy helpers deserve credit for Wrangler’s early success, aided by those rodeo cowboys who test drove the jeans, the man behind the company’s success story today is John Schamberger, who was named president in November.
Schamberger is charged with heading up one of the world's largest publicly owned, apparel companies.
Schamberger is particularly proud of Wrangler's new "Gold Buckle" line that makes its debut this spring. He notes that one of the highest honors a rodeo competitor can win is
the coveted National Finals Rodeo gold buckle. That symbol of ultimate achievement is what inspired the company to create a premium category of new Western jeans and shirts bearing the "Gold Buckle" label. A hangtag in the shape of the NFR's gold buckle will convey the new trademark.
The new trademark also conveys that Wrangler, after almost half a century of success, is still keeping cowboy happy with jeans and shirts that fit their Western lifestyle and keep them comfortable in the corral or arena.
Of course, Rodeo Ben is long gone now, and so are some of those early cowboys who had a say in how the famous Wrangler jeans would look and fit.
But Jim Shoulders is still around, running a rodeo school at his ranch in Oklahoma.
And of course, he's still wearing Wranglers.
Originally published in the Spring 1994 issue of Cowboys & Indians.
Images courtesy of Wrangler.