The gauchos of Latin America. Brazil's vaqueiros. Mexico's vaqueros. The llaneros of Colombia and Venezuela. Hungary's csikos. The flamboyant Andalusian horsemen. The Cossack communities of the south Russian and Ukrainian plains. The burly badasses that ranch sheep throughout the great Australian outback...
There is certainly no shortage of macho, semi-barbarian even men immortalized in popular culture. "But none of them has generated a myth with serious international popularity, let alone one that can compare, even faintly, with the fortunes of the North American cowboy," observes the late historian Eric Hobsbawm in Fractured Times (his final book). "Why?"
Probably because the foreign view of the "wild" west during the 18th and early 19th centuries was that it represented two key issues of the day: (1) the conflict that arose as civilization encroached on nature; and (2) the growing desire to live free of social constraint. And the cowboy hero who embodied both struggles was seen as an explorer with "noble" motives, meaning that of all the things he sought, money was fairly low on the list. "He represented the ideal of individualist freedom pushed into a sort of inescapable jail by the closing of the frontier and the coming of the big corporations," continues Hobsbawm, noting that "local western newspapers were not filled with stories about bar-room fights, but about property values and business opportunities."
And who doesn't love someone in a cute ensemble and in peak physical condition who rails against both Big Business and the state? The American capitalism of the period had an anarchistic streak, says Hobsbawm, "a myth of a Hobbesian state of nature mitigated only by individual and collective self-help: licensed or unlicensed gunmen, posses of vigilantes and occasional cavalry charges." As the cowboy morphed into more of a gunslinger in the popular imagination, he also represented the "ideal of an individual uncontrolled by any constraints of state authority...I don't think it was an accident that the ideal-typical cowboy hero of the classic invented west was a loner, not beholden to anyone; nor, I think, that money was not important for him."
As a loner, it was far easier for others to imagine themselves in the cowboy/gunslinger's manly boots. "To be Gary Cooper at high noon or Sam Spade, you just have to imagine you are one man, whereas to be Don Corleone or Rico, let alone Hitler, you have to imagine a collective of people who follow and obey you, which is less plausible," addss Hobsbawm. "I suggest that the cowboy, just because he was a myth of an ultra-individualist society, the only society of the bourgeois era without real pre-bourgeois roots, was an unusually effective vehicle for dreaming – which is all that most of us get in the way of unlimited opportunities."
For Fall 2015, the myth of the cowboy/gunslinger called to the Chinese-born, Dutch-trained Xander Chou. He found himself inspired by "America’s Wild West as I imagine it." (Emphasis mine.) The resulting twists of denim in unusual configurations turned out particularly innovative and fabulous, I think.
Very Brokeback Mountain chic.
- Lesley Scott