Recently, I broke a vow I’d made to myself in the summer of 2000: I bought a pair of cowboy boots. Not chic, pared down, 'cowboy-style' boots, but sparkling white, red, and blue, 50-star, rodeo queen, Brokeback Mountain, bald eagle booties. Southern hospitality shoes. The kind of boots that might offer to buy you a drink and walk you to your door.
Granted, they’re not entirely at home in London, where I live. The toe curls up and the heel stands at an angle. They reach that really unflattering point where your calf becomes your knee, or the other way around. They’re girthy, and they make a clunkity-clunk noise as I get on the train.
Like Juicy tracksuits and rah-rah skirts, I swore I’d never have a part in their inevitable revival. Once was enough. I had fashion blood on my hands already. I’d been there at the beginning and it was messy: I thought I looked like Madonna in the "Don’t Tell Me" video, but photographic evidence suggests a much closer resemblance to Olive from Little Miss Sunshine.
But it’s not just me. 'Cowgirlism' has actually taken hold. While politics and fashion aren’t natural bedfellows, conversationally they’ve been sparring partners for as long as they’ve both existed. There is the much-referenced hemline index, a theory put forward by economist George Taylor in 1926 which basically said that hemlines go up in correlation to stock prices (i.e. during the '60s) and plummet during poor economic times (i.e. after the 2008 economic crash). It might be possible, then, to argue that during times of particularly absurd politics (i.e. now), a more satirical fashion landscape emerges.
Trump’s America might seem like strange material for the fashion world’s more left-leaning monarchs, but it’s exactly the treasure trove many designers are plundering. The Instagram age, where social worthiness and style converge, has made talking about identity politics the remit of fashion designers globally. Fashion is the literal and metaphorical first line in communications in 2018 and Trumpian (or anti-Trumpian) references are becoming almost unavoidable for American designers. Take Alexander Wang’s spring '19 collection, shown last week on a rooftop at the South Street Seaport in New York City. Inspired by his parents' immigration story, the show starred Bella Hadid and Kaia Gerber as modern-day cowgirls, walking down the catwalk to Childish Gambino’s anti-gun anthem "This is America" in Axl Rose bandanas, leather hot pants, and stars and stripes baseball jackets.
Most of these trends can be breadcrumbed back to the oracle, Raf Simons — specifically, his spring '18 collection for Calvin Klein. Undoubtedly one of, if not the most authoritative voice in American fashion, Simons had just taken over the reins at the somewhat slumbering brand. A house with a reputation for designing wardrobes best suited to hanging out in the long grass of The Hamptons or the backyards of Connecticut, when Simons’ first round of tasteful red and blue silk cowboy shirts emerged on the runway, there was a pause. Then came midwestern prairie skirts in sanguine-hued leathers, and a series of red, white, and blue fringed dresses. The eye was slowly drawn to artist Sterling Ruby’s axes (inspired by The Shining) and steel buckets looming from the ceiling above. Clearly, this was not a serenade for POTUS. More Stephen King than Kellyanne Conway, the show was a comment on the beguiling and frightening state of modern America and the institutions that shroud it.
Elsewhere for spring 2018, designers presented a less cynical ode to Americana and its icons, embracing a strong and exciting modern cowgirl aesthetic. At Céline, yellow dyed python trousers and oversized horse bit belt buckles stole the limelight; Versace raided the Gianni archives, culminating in Kaia Gerber wearing a leather cowboy hat and a million Instagram It girls swooning; and London-based label Marques’Almeida reimagined the cowgirl uniform in seersucker minty greens and medicinal pinks tucked under cow-print kick flares, teeny-weeny ruffled skirts, and cowhide overcoats. Brands like Daisy are proffering Southern belle corsets in baby blue ginghams and broderie anglaise, while Adam Selman and Mathew Adams Dolan have gone down the ranch-girl road with pearl-embellished Western jackets and off-the-shoulder denim shirts.
Post-Obama, the world looks like a different place. It’s hard to want to celebrate Americana. But Simons’ power to steer focus onto the most pertinent societal anxieties and unhappy politics of our time is an example of how fashion can contribute a new vocabulary — and by doing so, bring new, more diverse audiences into it.
During times of great unrest and unease often comes the rawest creativity, frivolity, hedonism, and excitement (the Calvin Klein show notes spelled out this magic trick: "It’s about American horror and American beauty"). As an urban uniform, the cowgirl feels like a spirited and humorous approach to summer dressing. It’s not about taste or luxury, it’s not about fitting in or having the latest It bag. It’s about having a good time — and that’s something worth celebrating.