The Shirt that Won the West

In the westward movement of the 19th century, virtually every form of clothing was worn by those hardy souls who pioneered the new lands west of the Mississippi River. As immigrants from the eastern U.S. and other parts of the world trekked to the frontier, they brought with them the reigning fashions of the world they left behind.

In those early years of the West—save for buckskins and other hard-wearing materials—there weren’t any distinct “Western” styles or specialized “outdoor wear,” as we now have. In other words, newcomers to the frontier dressed virtually the same as their eastern cousins of the Victorian age of the mid-to-late 1800s. Ordinary work clothing—suits, shirts and trousers made of rugged woolens, canvas ducking and heavy denims, along with other durable natural fabrics, such as cottons, linens and even silks—preceded the chemically generated, weather-resistant miracle fibers of today’s world. Nonetheless, despite the lack of a definitive Western style as such, many who made their way west eventually dressed in a distinctive manner that bespoke of the great adventure they had embarked on. Eventually, some garments saw such wide use on the frontier that they became so closely associated with that region and were thus firmly entrenched in our minds as being strictly “Western apparel.”

Take the bib-front shirt, for example. While not as commonly encountered as some of the other types of shirts worn throughout the earlier period of the Old West, no other style has captured the flavor and romance of the cowboy of the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s like this double-breasted shirt. From its first inception, this handsome blouse was designed with the outdoorsman in mind. Generally made as a pullover shirt of wool or cotton flannel cloth, the placket, bib or shield attachment on the front of the garment offered distinctive looks and practicality. The addition of this bib, with its extra layers of fabric and buttons placed off center, afforded extra warmth for the torso while serving as a windbreaker—both important considerations to anyone who had to spend long periods of time outdoors. Although not a hard and fast rule, bib-front shirts were most often produced with an attached stand-and-fall collar. As anyone who’s been in extreme weather knows, a collar that can be turned up is a welcome aid in protecting the neck from icy snow, rain, winds or a broiling sun.

Bib-Front Basics

Normally offered with two rows of buttons running down either side of the chest front, some bib shirts were made with just a single row of buttons, placed off to one side of the front portion of the shirt body. Usually one or both sides of the bib or shield front could be unbuttoned, although some types were produced with a false-placket front—sans buttons or fasteners of any type—permanently attached to the body of the shirt. These bibs, whether detachable or permanently affixed to the shirt body, sported a host of designs ranging from a simple rectangular shape to those cut in the pattern of a federal shield, or sporting scalloped edges or some other attractive shape. Sometimes the bib—and possibly the collar and cuffs—would sport the addition of a flat braid or embroidery within or along the border of the bib, giving an extra flair to the garment.

Because of the militaristic look of a bold front and two rows of buttons or other embellishments on the shirt, bib-front shirts were held in high esteem by militia units, firemen and members of other action-oriented organizations who needed a showy, yet practical, uniform to wear while performing their tasks. These shirts were sometimes adorned with brass buttons to give a more “regimental” or uniform-like appearance.

It’s not known just when the bib-front style of apparel was first introduced, but it began to gain prominence in the mid-19th century. Based on images of the early 1800s, they don’t seem to have been around in the first years of that age. They do, however, appear frequently in daguerreotypes dating from the mid-to-late 1840s—in images from the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, as well as during the California Gold Rush of 1849, and the pre-Civil War years of the 1850s. Bib shirts were a popular form of inexpensive uniform during the Civil War, when they were often called “battle shirts,” and were worn (often over another lighter-weight shirt) by soldiers of both sides, especially Confederate soldiers, often as militia uniforms.

Although the bib-front style doesn’t appear in mail-order catalogs like those from Montgomery Ward, Sears, Roebuck & Co. and others until around the turn of the century, the shirt—in its many forms—was indeed worn during the early post-Civil War era of the wild and wooly West. Worn by cowboys, soldiers, buffalo hunters, miners, scouts and plainsmen of all types, it attained such popularity with this rugged outdoor breed that the bib shirt quickly became identified with the hardy Westerner of the late 1860s through the early 1900s, as evidence, numerous images, both photographic and artist’s periodical illustrations, can be found. Often marketed as a “fireman” or “hunters” shirt—and sometimes referred to as a “shield-front” or simply a double-breast-ed shirt—bib-front shirts gave the working frontiersman a practical garment, and the Wild West show performer a flamboyant piece of attire that could be gussied up to exaggerated levels, and they often were!

Generally speaking, the bibs on these period shirts are considerably smaller than those seen in many Western movies or with a few of today’s reproductions. Regardless, images of bib-front shirts can be found that are fairly simple, sporting dark buttons on a dark flannel shirt, or perhaps employing buttons that are covered with the same fabric as the shirt body. Others that went a step further and dressed their bib-front shirts with buttons that contrasted with the colors of the apparel. A typical example of this is often seen where the wearer has donned a dark shirt—most likely of navy blue flannel—while fastening the bib’s front with white buttons—probably made from bone, vegetable ivory or ocean pearl.

Embroidered floral designs, stars and other elaborate geometric patterns—even horseshoes, ship’s anchors and oriental dragons, considered good luck symbols—and other motifs decorated the placket fronts of these attractive shirts. Firemen often adorned their bib shirts with a large numeral designating their engine or “hose” company, while fraternal organizations might sport emblems depicting their order. For generations, many people have referred to the bib-front shirt as a “cavalry” or a “military officer’s” shirt. This is largely the product of Hollywood’s use of them as uniforms in many Western movies. Although military men on the frontier occasionally wore the style, it was never an item of regulation issue. However¸ such garments were privately purchased by the officers and enlisted men at their own expense, and worn in the somewhat informal atmosphere of military posts of the far West of the late 19th century.

Silver Screen Influence

With the coming of the Western movies of the 20th century, the bib-front shirt was a natural piece of wardrobe for depicting the strong, mythical hero of the Old West. It was ruggedly handsome, and this unique garment lent itself to adornments of virtually any type the filmmakers desired. Although the style was worn by a number of cowboy stars during the Golden Age of film, such as Joel McCrea, Gary Cooper, Robert Taylor, George Montgomery, Gregory Peck and Wild Bill Elliot, to name a few, John Wayne was by far the bib-front shirt’s most ardent proponent. The Duke wore a variety of bib shirts in a number of his silver-screen classics like Stagecoach, Angel and the Badman, Red River, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Horse Soldiers and many others.

In more recent times, an assortment of horse operas saw the bib-front shirt’s continued use by Western actors like Tom Selleck in Quigley Down Under, Kevin Costner in Open Range and Buck Taylor and Powers Booth in Tombstone. Disney’s Tall Tale saw Patrick Swayze don a bib shirt for his colorful portrayal of the mythical cowhand Pecos Bill, and Bruce Boxleitner wore this classic bit of wardrobe in TV’s How the West Was Won and Louis L’Amour’s Down the Long Hills. It’s hard to imagine any trail-dust saga without seeing at least one of these classic Old West shirts being worn.

Today’s Cowboy Action and Cowboy Mounted Shooters, along with Western fans alike, are fortunate to have a good a selection of this archetypal frontier shirt to choose from. Virtually every company that now produces or retails Old West clothing offers at least one, if not several variations, of the bib-front-style shirt. As evidenced by vintage photos and illustrations, it was as popular in the Wild West of yesteryear, as it is nowadays at Western functions or everyday wear! Worn by so many 19th century frontiersmen from all walks of life, and gaining legions of admirers from viewing it on the silver screen, the bib-front shirt could truly be called “the shirt that won the West!”