Westward-Ho!

'Dude Ranch Vacations' print advert for Northern Pacific/Yellowstone Park Rail Line, in The Sportsman magazine, March 1933.  (BNSF Railway Company)

‘Dude Ranch Vacations’ print advert for Northern Pacific/Yellowstone Park Rail Line, in The Sportsman magazine, March 1933. (BNSF Railway Company)

The more eagle-eyed of my followers will have noticed that a new-ish tab has appeared on The Style Stakes’ menu bar, a tab titled ‘Buckskin and Ballgowns’.  This is the name of my latest research project, which sees me taking up a month-long Viva Foundation Fellowship funded by the Autry National Center for Western Heritage in Los Angeles.  Very soon, I will be headed ‘out West’, to sunny California, to spend a blissful (and no doubt blistering) month in the archives at the Autry researching female dude ranchers and resort wear from the interwar period.  For a longer explanation of the project, click on the Buckskins and Ballgowns tab post-haste.

On the face of it, a project about dude ranch vacations (dude ranches being working holidays where Easterners could sample a version of cowboy life) may seem an obscure departure from my usual scholarly territory of riding dress, sportswear and American fashion.  But my forthcoming foray into ranch- and resort-wear isn’t so far removed from my regular interests.  In fact, it seems (to me) an obvious trajectory on my interwar, equestrian, female, fashion research journey.  Dude ranch vacations were, essentially, horse riding holidays and peaked in popularity in the 1920s and 1930s as Easterners sought respite from the agitations of modern living.  Dude ranches were opportunities for play and playfulness in the sublime setting of the great outdoors and the process of ‘dressing up’ for the West (to varying degrees of authenticity) was part and parcel of that escape from the formalities of (sub)-urban routine.  Dudes (the term used to describe, sometimes somewhat hapless, Eastern tourists) were often motivated and influenced by portrayals of the West on the silver screen.  The Hollywood movie industry was booming and the buying and wearing of a theatrical interpretation of ranch costume enabled dudes to perform the role of cowboy and bring their fantasies closer to life.

Travelling to and from dude ranches was all part of the exciting vacation experience, too.  Modern, luxurious, airliners and long distance rail routes catered for tourists making the journey West.  Many rail road operators teamed up with dude ranch owners to promote their related services and packaged these through enticing, richly-illustrated, promotional materials such as posters, print ads and brochures (and I’ll be working on some of these original travel brochures as part of my study at the Autry).  Indeed, these tantalising marketing images, which were featured in equestrian and sporting magazines of the day, were what first piqued my curiosity for Western riding dress.  As a researcher, seeing these, I began to realise that there were stories to be told about interwar riding dress beyond my studies of the East coast formality of hunting turnout, side saddle attire and show ring uniforms.  And thus, I too now am making my own journey West (in every sense).

Back in 2012, I very, very briefly referenced the three ‘nodes’ of dude ranch vacations, Western riding dress and rail road advertising in one of my published articles, laying the groundwork, I guess, for the bigger ‘Buckskins and Ballgowns’ project that is, only now, coming to fruition.  That article was a piece, in the main, about female equestrians and formal dress codes (titled ‘A Severity of Plainness’) but towards its end there are hints towards alternative versions of riding dress.  The most relevant extract refers to the Northern Pacific ad illustrated, top left, in this blog post, and reads:

“Riding holidays also emerged in another, very different, form during the 1920s and 1930s.  Dude ranch vacations were increasingly popular and opened up ‘The West’ as a viable destination and leisure space for Society women.  Importantly, the ‘Old World’ regulations of English riding turn-out were considered inappropriately uptight or ‘academic’ to use the words of Amory (1933, 47), in the more casual American ‘wild’ West.  This point is visualized in the imagery (see image, top left) used by Northern Pacific to promote ranching holidays in the Montana-Wyoming Rockies (The Sportsman 1933: inside cover).  A young woman is perched on a cliff top gazing across the wide open spaces of the West.  Her tousled hair blows, untamed, in the wind.  Her bright red neckerchief hangs loosely.  Her hands-on-hips stance is unchecked.  The freedom from centuries old Anglo-European codes is marked symbolically through her appearance.  She is dressed for riding but not in the traditional sense.  As much as the 1920s and 1930s were about the enforcement of long-held codes in riding dress, they were also a period in which conventions were re-written for the emerging spatial and sartorial territory of the American West (Albrecht, Farrel-Beck and Winakor, 1988).  The West marked a literal and metaphorical frontier for female riding dress.”

Citation: Goodrum, Alison (2012) ‘A Severity of Plainness: The Culture of Female Riding Dress in America During the 1920s and 1930s’ Annals of Leisure Research, 15(1): pp. 87-105.