Throughout history, clothing made from the hides of animals has proven to be practical, comfortable and hard wearing. From man’s earliest time to the modern age, buckskin—the hide of a deer—has been one of the favored leathers for covering and adorning his body. This versatile skin offers warmth, protection and comfort while lending itself to a multitude of fashionable garments.
In the Old West, buckskin was the primary source of clothing for many Native American tribes. Hide clothing was quickly adopted by the early explorers and trappers who came into contact with the Indians after they saw the value and availability of this durable covering in the far-flung regions they traveled. Buckskin continued to see much usage throughout the era of the mountain men. These hardy frontiersmen, who lived isolated in the wilderness for months—sometimes years—at a stretch, relied heavily on buckskin and other softly brain or smoke-tanned hides as replacements for their commercially manufactured cloth garments, when such “store-bought” apparel wore out. By the 1840s, buckskin and other tanned hide coverings had become symbolic of the frontier loner—the scout or trapper—who lived away from the few outposts of civilization.
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By the time of the post-Civil-War West, there were enough trading posts, towns and other centers of commerce scattered throughout the frontier that commercially produced cloth goods were easier to obtain, and in many cases, more economical, than acquiring clothing made from hides. Also, the newer breed of Westerners, made up largely of immigrants from the Old World, were more prone to wear the domesticated type of readily available textile attire they had worn in their former homes, rather than “go native” and don the hides of animals.
Regardless, buckskin garments still found a place in this frontier culture. Those who earned their living on the outskirts of civilization, like buffalo hunters, military scouts, soldiers, professional meat hunters, cowboys and other outdoorsmen, knew the value and long-lasting qualities of clothing made from an animal’s tanned hide. Buckskin has many qualities to endear it to outdoor and rough-country living. It provides warmth in colder climes, yet it is not too hot to wear in moderate weather. Buckskin is also washable—well, to a degree. If it gets dirty, water will usually remove the dirt, but it should be hung and aired out, rather than placed next to a fire or a heater, to dry properly afterwards.
Buckskin stretches, too, and while this may not be desirable in a garment made as a fashion piece, it certainly provides comfort and ease of movement for such tasks as mounting and dismounting a horse. The fashion conscious should be advised that the knees and backsides of buckskin pants, and the elbow area on shirts or jackets, get stretched out of shape fairly easily from bending and kneeling. However, lining the garment with a thin cloth like cotton, satin or silk can reduce any stretching to a tolerable level. Nevertheless, animal skins are naturally rugged, resisting tearing, wearing and the other frailties of cloth garments, and when greased properly—whether on purpose or through the daily rigors of camp life—they can become “waterproof,” or at least more resistant to water than woven duds.
Many frontiersmen would wear a mixture of materials, perhaps donning a pair of buckskin trousers with a shirt of wool, cotton or some other fabric, or maybe opting for a shirt of soft skins, worn with cloth trousers. Some might wear a buckskin jacket over their clothing, offering the practicality of a rugged hide while maintaining a handsome, rakish look. Buckskin shirts were indeed popular with a number of frontiersmen, for both practical purposes as well as for fashion’s sake. Original specimens of upper wear dating from the late 19th century have been found in a multitude of styles ranging from the double-breasted bib, or shield-front shirt, to a simple lace-up pullover or single-row button-front type—with each type presenting a rugged, yet dashing Wild West look.
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Buckskin trousers could run the gamut in style from simple, unadorned straight-legged models to those sporting fringe, fancy buttons a la the Spanish look, colorful embroidery, beads, porcupine quills or almost any other embellishment that a dandy Westerner could conjure up. It was also quite common to find shirts and jackets of skins bearing fringe, or perhaps boasting fur trimmings, and like the trousers, decoration and styling was a personal thing that varied considerably. A practice favored by a number of cowboys was to reinforce the seat and sometimes the entire inner legs of their store-bought heavy woolen trousers with buckskin or the soft hide of other plains animals. Trousers so customized can be seen in a number of Charles M. Russell paintings and illustrations, and Charlie himself was fond of such apparel. In fact, as a young cowboy, Kid Russell was given the name “Ah-Wah-Cous,” the Sioux name for an antelope, because of how he looked from behind with his buckskin-reinforced trousers.
Another form of buckskin apparel that enjoyed fair popularity with these “cavaliers of the Great Plains” was the vest. Constructed in the traditional manner of waistcoats (as they were often called in the 19th century) of the era, buckskin vests could be made with or without lapels and might enjoy a bit of colorful cloth braid trim around the edges of these lapels, or along the edges of the entire garment. Other forms of decoration for buckskin vests of the Old West included designs of beadwork, porcupine quills, silken—or even metallic thread such as gilt or silver bullion—embroidery, or a fringed trim. Some deerskin vests were made entirely of a tanned hide (generally without the hair), while others employed the standard method of manufacture, where the vest front would be of skin sewn to a cloth backing, containing lacing or a buckle in the back for final fitting.
The West Evolves
During the early days of the West, many pieces made of buckskin were finished in a primitive cut, where the natural, ragged ends are left on the garment, as opposed to being neatly trimmed and/or hemmed straight, as with a piece of yard goods. As the frontier became more populated and “civilized,” more conventionally tailored attire became fashionable, undoubtedly due to the influence of the white man’s clothing and the availability of professional tailors in the West.
Plainsman types, such as Wild Bill Hickok, George A. Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody, Texas Jack Omohundro and many others—including a number of cowboys, like one of the Old West’s favorite cowboy artists, young Charlie Russell—adopted this “tailored” buckskin look, both for range wear or for use on stage or in the Wild West show arena, depending on their needs and tastes. While some of these conventionally finished outfits were handmade by Native American crafts-people, others were commercially produced by professional tailors. In later years, Cody, and those who followed his lead with other Wild West shows, relied heavily on fancy embroidered and/or beaded buckskin coats, gauntlets and other items of clothing made of animal skins to project their image as true frontiersmen of an earlier time. These showmen wore buckskins to such an extent that by the turn of the century, a fancy deerskin outfit had become symbolic of the old-time plainsman and the Wild West show performer. I can personally attest to the comfort, durability and Old West flavor afforded by buckskin apparel, as I’ve worn—and continue to wear—a number of these garments during my own career as a Wild West show performer. They are comfortable, whether I’m dismounted or in a saddle.
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With the coming of motion pictures, buckskins were quickly employed by costumers to convey the romantic and adventurous image of the plainsman of old, and these garments were worn by such silver screen stars as John Wayne in his 1930 epic The Big Trail, 1949’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Hondo (1953) and The Searchers (1956); Gary Cooper in 1936’s The Plainsman; Joel McCrea in 1944’s epic Buffalo Bill and the 1950 trail dust saga, The Outriders; Errol Flynn in 1939’s Dodge City, and They Died With Their Boots On (1941); James Arness in the 1970s TV series How the West Was Won; more recently by Billy Bob Thornton, wearing an accurate replica of what was reportedly Davy Crockett’s vest in the 2004 movie The Alamo; and several characters in the 2015 TV mini-series Texas Rising can be seen sporting an array of buckskin duds, to mention just a few. From the first moment an actor appears on screen in buckskins, his character is immediately established in the viewer’s mind as a man of adventure and action, as well as a veteran frontiersman. Even in the 21st century, with all the interest in the latest technology, the look of old-time buckskins on a Westerner will turn the heads of audiences, whether on the screen in television and movies or in the arena of live Western shows.
Whether it’s a whole outfit or simply a single garment of this attractive and durable hide, buckskin offers a dashing appearance that is reminiscent of America’s frontier heritage. In fact, buckskin offers the authentic look of the Old West as much as the cowboy’s broad-brimmed hat, his sixgun and holster, his silver-mounted spurs or any other part of a Westerner’s outfit from that flavorful, bygone era.
This article originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.