Women pose at a Wyoming ranch, c. 1930. From Fine Art of the West, via
In January, when we're seemingly encouraged to beat ourselves up for various life failings, I try to promote a bit of being nice to yourself. With that in mind, for the 'Looking Back' slot in that month's issue of The Simple Things, I suggested a feature on the history of denim - after all, what's easier than pulling on a pair of jeans?
Bar Nick Kamen in a laundrette and the occasional story of people hunting for priceless denim in abandoned mines, I knew very little about the topic and I headed straight for the copy of Denim: A Visual History in the British Library (always slightly too expensive on eBay). Among the familiar brand names of Levi's, Lee and Wrangler and their links to denim as workwear, I found a reference to the first Lady Levi's in the 1930s with a tantalising mention of them being born out of the freedom of the dude ranches, and their associations with the quickie divorce. And, naturally, that became one of my key preoccupations.
The fantastic thing about writing for a magazine is that you can call on people far more knowledgeable than yourself to fill in some of the gaps. I spoke to Professor Alison Goodrun, who had recently returned from the Autry Center for Western Heritage (you can read her excellent blog here), researching female dude ranchers and resort wear. Dude ranch holidays peaked in the 1920s and 30s and offered a 'back to nature' retreat for wealthy East coasters. In reality, these were elaborate commercial enterprises, offering all kind of creature comforts and pushing vacationers into their outfitters to get fully kitted out in your western gear. It was a form of holiday wear. Just as wearing beach pyjamas was allowable by the seaside, jeans became acceptable wear on the dude ranch. Although they were sold in a select few East coast stores, a pair of jeans brought back from the West was the sought after souvenir.
‘Dude Ranch Vacations’ print advert for Northern Pacific/Yellowstone Park Rail Line, in The Sportsman magazine, March 1933. (BNSF Railway Company). Via Style Stakes project
The idea of freedom is captured wonderfully in this advert, featured on Professor Goodrun's blog. Like the best adverts, it's completely aspirational, promising an escape from everyday life and from social norms. But, as she points out, it's a complete break from traditional 'Old World' riding gear - it's a challenge to the upright regulations of English riding turn-out.
The Women, via
As I mentioned the subject to others, the reference came back time and time again: The Women. In this 1939 film, they decamp on a ranch to Reno waiting for their divorcees to come through. Each woman wears their own take on the Western look, from Mary's suitably wholesome checked shirt to the Countess De Lave's glitzy and ridiculous get-up.
I love this image of a 1942 shop display at Chicago's Marshall Field & Company, showing suitable dude ranch attire for such wealthy women. And Lisette Model's photographs of soon-to-be divorcees at Nevada dude ranches, taken in 1949 for Harper's Bazaar, are also amazing.
Diana Cooper and Iris Tree, from Diana Cooper's Autobiography
All of these wealthy women in western wear took me back to an amazing image I'd seen much earlier, this grainy image of British aristocrat Diana Cooper, photographed with fellow actress Iris Tree, included in Cooper's autobiography. Had they too succumbed to ranch fever? Although not providing fulsome details, Cooper indeed writes of "an orgy of 'dude' buying" on their arrival into Kansas City. Ever the trend setter, Cooper's entry dates to 1926.
About the same time I filed my article, Denim: Fashion's Frontier opened at New York's FIT, exploring denim's history and including a shout-out to the dude ranch. Although I can't get to New York, I was pleased to discover FIT's assistant curator is giving a free lecture in London in March, which I can attend (side note: how great does this display about the Snow/Vreeland heyday of Harper's Bazaar sound?). How delightful also that the sequel to the popular street style book, Denim Dudes, will focus on Denim 'Dudettes' - promising more stylish women in denim.