One could make a good argument that the single most versatile article of clothing worn by the old-time cowman was his vest. In many ways, this simple sleeveless garment could be called his headquarters or office. Since the 19th century cowhand spent most of his time out of doors on the open range, and in the saddle, he had to carry everything he needed with him. Even though his profession didn’t require much “paperwork,” it was still necessary that he pack a few essentials and personal comforts with him. For these purposes, his vest made for a perfect “office in the saddle.” Certainly, the modern Cowboy Action Shooter, Cowboy Mounted Shooter, horseback hunter, hiker or wilderness trekker has similar requirements and will undoubtedly find the multi-pocketed vest, also known as a “waistcoat” or “weskit,” as handy today as it would have been on the open ranges of the Old West.
Besides serving its basic function of providing warmth for the cowboy’s torso, or for anyone who spent time in the great outdoors, such as hunters, railroad workers and other laborers, this sleeveless garment furnished handy pockets for the variety of items a cowpoke or outdoorsman might carry. In recalling his days riding with herds in the latter part of the 19th century and the dawning years of the 20th century, Wyoming cowboy John K. Rollinson recalled, “Many of the riders wore vests, for a vest was most handy in that it had pockets for tobacco, matches and other knickknacks.” He went on to say, “The vest could be of any color or shade.”
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Often, vests were furnished with two to four pockets deep enough to hold most personal items, making them a form of headquarters on horseback. Such pocket goods might include a small folding knife, a cowman’s tally book (used for counting and keeping track of cattle), matches (stick matches called “Lucifers”), or a smoker’s “makin’s”—a bag of loose tobacco and paper for rolling “smokes,” because in the 1870s and 1880s, no self-respecting waddy would resort to using a city fellow’s “tailor-mades” or packaged, pre-rolled cigarettes. Also, if he could afford one, his pocket watch would also be stashed there for safe keeping, attached to a fancy store-bought chain and watch fob (a small charm that hung from one end of the chain for decoration), or perhaps a decorative leather tab or maybe just a homemade braided leather thong, which in turn might be run through one of the button holes, and thus fastened securely to his vest.
A vest could be worn buttoned completely, partially or, as was the case with many drovers, left open for a looser fit. As another Wyoming cattleman, E. Hough, remembered, “…a vest closely buttoned about the body will cause you to perspire, so that you will quickly chill upon ceasing your exercise. His own waistcoat, loose and open, admits the air freely, so that the perspiration evaporates as rapidly as it forms.” Hough went on to say that the advantage of wearing one’s vest unbuttoned was “If the wind be blowing keenly, when he dismounts to sit down upon the ground for dinner, he buttons up his waistcoat and is warm. If it be very cold, he buttons also his coat.”
A townsman would also store similar personal items in his vest as well, although they would probably vary somewhat from what the man on the open range would opt for. In addition to any or all of the aforementioned items, a city fella might opt for any of a number of gentleman’s accessories. The well-dressed man about town would probably carry such personal grooming aids like a mustache comb or a retractable toothpick (quite the rage with the proper set in Victorian times). His pockets might also contain eyeglasses, keys, a fruit knife (a very small pocket knife used for cutting or peeling fruit), pocket change, folding “greenback” money or whatever else he deemed necessary—possibly including a derringer or a small dirk if his profession or lifestyle deemed the need for such protection.
For the outdoorsman in the years before the introduction of all of today’s modern and lightweight “miracle fibers,” heavy woolen or corduroy-fronted vests—often remnants from old suits—were ideal since they provided the most warmth without having to resort to a constricting and most likely very heavy coat. The townsman, who may or may not have spent more time indoors, also wore vests of these materials, but their wardrobe could also include lightweight linens, silks and velvets depending on the weather, situation or the wearer’s personal preference. For fashion, every imaginable pattern was used; stripes, plaids, checks, floral and geometric designs, oriental brocades and just about any decorative design were employed. While we generally tend to think of a gambler or anyone of the sporting set in a fancy silken or velvet brocaded vest, it was not uncommon for such “gents” to wear a solid colored or plain black vest, perhaps sporting some braid trim along the outer edges of the lapels, pockets and perhaps the vest body.
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Generally, however, only the vest’s fronts were made of these costlier fabrics, while the inner linings and vest backings were of a lighter polished cotton, glaze cloth or silken/sateen material. Vest linings and backings were often simple solid colors like cream, black, dark blue or tan, but stripes, polka dots and other patterned fabrics can often be found on surviving original specimens. For adjusting the fit, a buckle and adjustable strap were most often sewn to the lower portion of the backing, or, on occasion, string lacing was used for proper fitting purposes. Buttons on the fronts of suits or working vests could range from plain hard rubber, bone, vegetable ivory or cloth-covered versions, and in fancier dressy vests, buttons of metal (brass, silver and other attractive materials) or even jeweled finery such as mother of pearl, carved ivory or gem-studded examples might enhance the overall appearance of such apparel.
As a rule, vests of the mid-to-late 19th century sported lapels, though some were made without such appendages. These lapels were usually either the earlier period’s rounded “shawl” style or the V-notch design that came into vogue somewhat after the Civil War. However, both styles remained popular into the 20th century. Some military waistcoats, as well as those of the clergy, sported small standup collars, and the vests were fabricated without lapels so they could be buttoned to the throat. With regard to the cut of the waistline, although a few examples of pointed-bottom vests have been noted in period photos, the greater majority of them were tailored with a flat bottom, reaching to, or about an inch below, the trouser waistline, which was considerably higher than that of modern trousers. They did not reach down as far as the groin area, as do some of today’s Old West replica offerings—which I think looks pretty silly. A word to the wise: When shopping for old-timey vests, check to see that they don’t extend too far down the torso, as they tend to look more like mini-skirts than waistcoats! However, in fairness, these vests are probably cut longer to accommodate the low rise of modern jeans and other modern-style trousers.
Another hint in obtaining an authentic period look is to make sure your vest fits you properly. Most Westerners now wear their vests as very loose-fitting garments, but the Victorian era (and even many well-dressed gentlemen of today) dictated that a closely fitted, sometimes even tight fitting, vest was the proper way to don such apparel. In this way, the vest provides both warmth and a well-tailored look. When purchasing an Old West-type vest that will give the proper look, be sure to get a vest that fits comfortably snug—but definitely not floppy and loose! Further, as stated before, make sure it does not extend more than an inch below the beltline of your period-type trousers!
Although some frontiersman did wear vests made of buckskin, perhaps with embellishments of embroidery, porcupine quill trim or beadwork, such garments were usually patterned after those commercially produced cloth examples of the era. For the most part, 19th century vests definitely did not look much like the slick “gunfighter” shiny or rough-out leather versions, adorned with conchos and other fofarraws, that has so often been seen in so many Hollywood films and in modern Western wear stores. Sorry, Duke, but we still love your Westerns!
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Worn buttoned or open, the vest can provide both a practical and handsome addition to anyone’s Old West outfit. In cooler climes, it provides warmth to the body while offering freedom to the arms. Also, the pockets are great for packing small personal knickknacks. To maintain an authentic look with your vest, study period photos and read up on the fashions of the Victorian times. Remember, much of what the Victorian-era frontiersman wore was simply eastern-manufactured clothing that had made its way west of the Mississippi. It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that modern “cowboy”-style vests and other clothing types were created. For further reading, I suggest the excellent book I See By Your Outfit: Historic Cowboy Gear of the Northern Plains by Tom Lindmier and Steve Mount, available at amazon.com and highplainspress.com. It is an interesting and informative work on the subject.
This article originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.