Western Fancy Dress Costumes
Amongst the most frequent theme suggestions for a fancy dress party is ‘Wild West’, often in connection with a County & Western or Line-Dance evening. There are some excellent hub-pages elsewhere which deal with aspects such as the Invites and the Decorations (’a few Wanted posters here, a straw bale or two there’) but few actually set out any costume suggestions for those who’d like to go a little beyond ‘a cowboy’ or ‘a saloon-girl’. Like the cavalry in the Western movies, Party Girl (Props n Frocks Fancy Dress) to the rescue! We had hoped a movie reviving the legendary Western hero The Lone Ranger, (featuring Johnny Depp as his faithful companion Tonto), recently released, might have created an upturn in interest in the Wild West theme, but the film was not a great box-office success. So no great cowboys and Indians revival!
Given my home market is Britain, but aware of the international readership of these pages, I’d ask those with more detailed knowledge and experience of the Wild West to cut a little slack and allow some poetic licence where necessary, although helpful feedback and comment is always welcomed.
Props n Frocks Fancy Dress has been established since 1998 and is THE place to go, either online, or at our Essex base for all your western fancy dress costumes & accessories. Props n Frocks also provides a whole range of theme suggestions and costume ideas for the themes, we are THE fancy dress experts - why go anywhere else?
As I have already said, Western is a very popular fancy dress theme. It is also a theme where you can easily put your own costumes together, as there is a huge range of western accessories available to purchase. Most of us have a pair of jeans in our wardrobe and just be adding 1 or 2 items, you can get into the spirit of the event -there is no need to go over the top if you are not really into dressing up.
If you are hosting a wild west costume party, we would also recommend that you do purchase a few spare Stetson hats or Indian feather headbands etc. You can hand them out to any guest who dares turn up for your party without any form of costume on. As we have stated in other hubs, it is really important that as many of your guests dress up in the party theme, as this helps to create the unique atmosphere that is a fancy dress party.
The range of western accessories includes:
- Stetson - Cowboy Hats
- Guns & Holsters (although be mindful of local laws on replica guns to avoid any problems with the Authorities)
- Indian headpieces
- Indian Weapons
- Indian Jewellery
- Cowboy Moustaches
- Sheriff Badges
- Bullet Belts
- Cowboy Bandanas
- A whole range of pink cowgirl accessories for you ladies!
Wild West Character/Costume suggestions.
Annie Oakley was a sharpshooter discovered by ‘Buffalo Bill’ when his Wild West Show stopped at New Orleans in 1885 tour. Her story was dramatised in ‘Annie Get Your Gun.’, the stage-show which brought Ethel Merman to fame. Contemporary pictures show her with a wide-brim hat, fringed buckskin-style outfit, long skirt and hunting rifle.
Barkeep/Bartender A stalwart image from Wild West films – usually seen handing (or sliding) drinks to customers and diving for cover at the first sign of trouble. A bar-keep apron, possibly work with a waistcoat. and table-clean cloth might come in handy!
Saloon Owner/Entrpreneur. Bored with just being ‘a saloon girl’? In the entrepreneurial Old West, many Saloon bar-owners were female. Some of them offered their customers more than drink and gaming facilities, as well as somewhere to wait before the next gunfight broke out! When looking for role models for this character, one is drawn to Mae West and her performances in ‘Klondike Annie’ and ‘Belle of the Nineties’
Bounty Hunter Another type of entrepreneur, the Bounty Hunter was usually a loner earning his (or her) crust by tracking down outlaws. Usually in it for the money rather than the ‘community service’, many developed their skills to eventually market themselves as ‘detectives’ a more respectable profession.
Calamity Jane Born Martha Jane Cannary, ‘Calamity’ was a hard-drinking woman who wore men's clothing, used bawdy language, and was handy with a gun. She dressed exactly as a cowboy would and contemporary portraits show her in a buckskin two-piece outfit, with traditional hat. Her portrayal by Doris Day featured a similar outfit with fringing and cavalry-style kepi headgear.
Cavalryman. In many 'westerns', a desperate situation was often ‘saved by the cavalry’. In practice, keeping the peace between the native American Indians, and the white settlers who coveted their land was an impossible task - there was an average of one soldier for every 66 sq. miles of territory to be patrolled. Clothing issued to the cavalry were leftovers from the Civil War stockpiles, so might not fit that well (good excuse for an ill-fitting outfit!) ‘Uniform’ consisted light blue wool trousers, dark blue heavy wool jackets with choke collars, grey flannel shirts, knee-length boots, tops turned down and hats according to troop.
Cowboy Despite the wide range of ‘off-the-peg’ costumes available, many people can put together their own cowboy outfit with the help of a few accessories. Most of the traditional western cowboys preferred plain styles and dark colours. The only relief from the sombre image was the brightly coloured kerchief worn around the neck (or, if you were an outlaw, worn over the lower face to hide your identity). Chaps – leather-style breeches in open or wraparound style may also be worn.
Cowgirl Technically ‘cowgirls’ as such, did not exist as the real Wild West made no distinction between the sexes. Women who worked ‘out on the range’ wore the same practical clothing and did the same sort of work where possible. All were equal and many developed their own ranching and droving businesses. In the world of costuming there are, of course a large number of excellent cowgirl costumes available - there are also plenty on the short, skimpy and impractical side!
Doctor ‘Doc’ Holliday, one of the participants in the gunfight at the OK Corral possibly springs to mind here. Doctors on the Frontier had very little medicine and often had to improvise cures. Some took up secondary careers – notably as undertakers!
Frontiersmen Probably the best known of these was Davy Crockett (‘King of the Wild Frontier’). He was the subject of a popular Disney TV series of the 50s/60s and was famed for his ‘coonskin’ hat. He lived from 1786 to 1836 and died fighting on behalf of Texas, at the battle of the Alamo
Gambler Gambling was a popular pastime in the West. Professionals who had honed their skills on the river-boats of the Mississippi and elsewhere followed the prospectors on the Gold Rush to the West to help in the ‘redistribution of income’. There are several outfits on the market, but the basic outfit might consist of fancy waistcoat, frilled shirt, frock-coat or jacket over pin-stripe (or similar) trousers.
Lone Ranger, The Amongst the many popular TV Western series' of the 1950s/60s was 'The Lone Ranger'. The series featured a mysterious masked gunman, dressed in white and with a white horse (Silver). He and his sidekick, the Native American Indian scout Tonto, appeared out of the blue to deal with baddies and wrongdoers, and then disappered into the sunset, just as mysteriously, to the question 'Who was that masked man?'. Another feature was the memorable theme tune, based on 'The William Tell Overture'. An official costume (helpfully with 'The Lone Ranger' written on the back so people don't have to ask who you are) can be found on the market.
A recent 'update' film of the story, featuring Arnie Hammer as The Ranger and Johnny Depp as Tonto was apparently intended to bring back the 'fun' of Cowboys & Indians (much as the same production company did for pirates in the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' films), but, as we said, the film was not a great success
Marshall The Marshall was a court officer with functions similar to a Sheriff. The Old West produced a number of famous marshals – ‘Wild Bill’ Hickock & Wyatt Earp to name but two. A dark suit and hat might suffice, although if called on to fill the post of a recently deceased sheriff, pending election of his successor, he would adopt conventional western wear.
Mexican Whilst American Indians had Asiatic origins and the ’pioneers’ moved in from the Eastern States, the population of what became Mexico, New Mexico & California derived from the Spaniards searching for Eldorado in South America. They were mostly farmers, maintaining Spanish traditions (including the siesta noon-break, giving rise to the stereotypical Mexican being asleep!) Unfortunately, exploitation of ‘peons’ (peasants), poverty and perceived injustice led some Mexicans to revolt and take matters into their own hands, so in addition to the ‘standard’ Mexican outfit of basic jeans and shirt worn (or well-worn) under a multi-coloured or patterned poncho and the almost obligatory wide-brim sombrero (and (optional) droopy moustache for men), a Mexican Bandit might ditch the poncho in favour of some weaponry such as guns and bandoliers
Native Indian Brave (Male) The term ‘Red Indian’ (or Redskins) is thought to derive from pioneers seeing the red skins of natives who used red oxide as body decoration. Indians themselves are thought to derive from Asiatic tribes crossing the ice-link between Asia and North America. Braves were expected to show bravery and courage in hunting and battle, earning feathers as they gained respect of their peers. This is one costume where you might want to skip authenticity - an Indian brave on the warpath was truly stripped for action, wearing only a breechclout (a strip of narrow cloth which passed through the legs and over a belt, hanging down at the front and back) and leggings (two side-fringed trouser-leg-like items which attached to the same belt). Although vests were worn at other times, they were too hot to be worn in action and could be a hindrance in battle. An alternative to the Breechclout was a form of apron consisting of two squares of decorated cloth tied at the hips. There are plenty of more practical outfit for our colder climate on the market.
Native Indian (Female)The term ‘squaw’ is frowned upon, being synonymous with ‘prostitute’ in native language. Despite the likes of famous female Indians such as Pocahontas and Minnie Ha-Ha, females were very much second-class citizens, more like property than equals to men. On the other hand, being vital to the survival of the tribe, they were the most fiercely defended by an Indian male (aside from his headdress and hunting weapons). As above, Native Indian female costumes available on the market may put practicality over authenticity.
Pioneer Woman On the Frontier, both male and female had to be equally hardy and when it came to survival skills and defence of life and property, the frontiers woman had to be as adept as her male counterparts. For the true pioneer woman, the costume consisted of a plain high-necked long dress with bonnet and apron. Although patterned materials were used, these tended to fade after harsh and repeated washing. In the West, practicality was a consideration and for horse-riding, younger women developed ‘skirts’ rather like baggy trousers or skirts with buttons.
Preacher The preacher seen in most westerns has a standardised look - a plain black suit (or long black coat) with a round, flat-brim hat, plus, of course, a ‘dog-collar’. A pair of wire-rimmed specs (or pince-nez) may also help the impression.
Prospector In the Gold Rush ’49 a range of nationalities were involved in the ‘stampede’. The typical prospector had a somewhat dishevelled image – battered hat (often used as a makeshift gold pan or drinking vessel), shirt, trousers (somewhat ragged), worn boots, plus prospecting equipment such as rock hammers, spades etc. Some might wish to channel the Warner Bros cartoon character Yosemite Sam (the one with the large ginger droopy moustache) as a role model.
Saloon Girl In the politically correct, picturesque Wild West, the Saloon Girl was an entertainer-cum-showgirl. In practice they were Jills-of-All-Trades who would turn their hands to anything that would earn them a living and helped separate the punter (usually) from his money. Although they were often employed by the establishment where they worked, many would not be adverse to a little individual self-enterprise, the best rising to develop their own businesses.
There are obvious similarities between Saloon Girl costumes and Can-can & Moulin Rouge outfits. Most outfits come in a range of permutations of basic costumes and accessories: The basic costume typical consists of a corset or basque, usually in lace and satin-type material with a lace-up front or back, and a separate skirt which may be frilled or ruched and gathered or split to show the leg(s). ‘;All-in-one’ outfits, although widely available on the market, are less authentic.
Sheriff Whilst Federal Marshalls were State/National Law officers, the Sheriff was the local lawman. Usually identified by his ‘star’ badge, he enforced the particular unique rules of a given community and often paid the price with his life.
Tonto Faithful Indian Scout companion and sidekick to the Lone Ranger. Jhonny Depp plays him in the recent unsuccessful remake, avoiding ethnic issues of 'browning up' with a tribal-style white face-paint design.
Wild West Showman William Frederick Cody, also known as Buffalo Bill, is probably the best known of the Western Showmen. There were, of course, less genuine (and scrupulous) showmen and ‘snake-oil’ salesmen willing to part punters from their cash and exploit their credibility. The Showman dresses to impress and dazzle his audience, so a flashy or ornate vest/waistcoat under a well-tailored suit was important to create the right impression. Showmen wishing to peddle medicine or other products might wish to convey an air of authority through use of glasses, walking cane or other trappings of the rich and knowledgeable.
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