It's hardly what you would call a stampede, but the cowboy look is leaving its mark on Washington, as cowboy boots, ten-gallon hats, yoked shirts and hand-tooled belts are finding a home on a range of customers.
An early clue that Western garb would be in fashion came in the fall of last year when the slick catalogue of a Fifth Avenue store featured models in cowboy clothes standing in front of skyscrapers on the cover. Although there were not crowds of takers for the $225 fringed suede jackets or pants at about the same price, sales of cowboy boots and hats took off and continue to climb.
And Ralph Lauren, who began by taming these traditional Western looks into high-priced luxury garb, is currently boasting a boom in his more moderately priced versions of the look.
"Imagine," Lauren says. "It took me 12 years to build a $12 million menswear business. It took me two months to sell almost $30 million in Westernwear."
Westernwear, particularly jeans and flannel shirts, became widely accepted in the 1960s by a generation seeking inexpensive, nonestablishment clothes. It was not long until jeans shops picked up the Western theme (the Pants Corral, the General Store) and filled out their stock with other Western accessories, especially the tooled, big-buckle belt, the yoked shirt and the cowboy hat.
But nationwide, the fastest moving fashion in Western chic is the cowboy boot -- with $200 million in business this past year alone. And Washington is no expection to the national trend.
Sam Brown, director of Action, wears them because "I'm a kid from the country," he says, "and they are as comfortable as house slippers but still look nice."
White House speechwriter Henrick Hertzberg says that they make him "feel close to being a movie star." And consultant Tony Kendall, who resoles his cowboy boots as many as 20 times before they wear out, says he wears them to the office and to fancy dress balls "because they are comfy -- and by now I've got pointy feet."
Whatever the reason, more people are wearing them than ever before. Counts Wetern Shop, on Wisconsin Ave., says that it has almost doubled business over the last year, with 125 pairs sold a week. "Some days we sell about 30 pairs," says Ruth Counts.
Jimmy Heatwole, owner of Rujim Western Shop in Fairfax City, has also noticed an increase in sales, but thinks it is only a warning of a boot boom ahead. "They are a huge success in New York right now, and we follow everything New York does by about a year," he says.
And it is happening in New York. Former Yankee manager Billy Martin opened a Westernwear shop there last December, and it has been so sucessful he's now considering selling franchises.
What's the appeal? Most wearers say comfort, the support of the steel shank and long-wearing quality. But Ralph Lauren, whose uniform for months has been jeans, silver-tipped Cowboy boots and an old Harris tweed jacket, says, "I just think there is a whole world out there which wants to look rugged and gutsy."
Many buyers are counting on the familiar Western styles during the tough economic season ahead when customers may be reluctant to gamble on totally new styles. But Nudie, king of cowboy couture and the original rhinestone cowboy, thinks quite the opposite. "It gives a man a chance to put on some flashy colors and clothes," he says. "And most men love the attention they get in these clothes," says Nudie. "I certainly do," he adds quickly.
"Tell me a man who doesn't want to own a pair of cowboys boots and a Western hat," challenges Larry Hubbard of the Texas Boot Company.
William Rossi, author of "The Sex Life of the Foot & Shoe" (Ballantine Books), is more specific about his view of the appeal: "... the cowboy and his boots represent an image of aggressive male thrust, of hard toughnes," he writes.
"But whether these boots are worn by psychosexually aggressive or passive men, the machismo or gladiator character of the boot itself feeds the undernourished sexual ego of the wearer."
Brad Cooper, writing in the Texas Monthly, prefers a more sociological explanation -- the cross-pollination of East and West in fashion. "People are wearing them (cowboy boots) today who wouldn't have worn them to their own funerals five years ago," says Cooper, pinning the reason on the international rise of Texas chic.
"Perhaps even more than the cowboy hat and shirt, a pair of boots is quintessentially Texan and, by extension, quintessentially American."
"It wasn't always this way," says Cooper, "but now, thanks to Willie, Jerry Jeff, progressive Country and, yes, even to Lyndon, it's become a source of pride rather than acute embarrassment."
"Texas chic," he concludes, "our homegrown variety of redneck chic, is just the natural outgrowth of the cowman and the hippie being friends."
"It's really from this country and nobody else can claim it," says Lauren, who has marketed cowboy chic into a$30 million business for the coming year, and is honestly amazed by the volume. He already has his label in Western-style hats and recently put it on a line of Acme Boots. One of his new styles is eggshell-colored calf with royal blue and floral inlays.
Lauren may have been the first designer to produce a whole collection of Western fashion, but others have tapped the trend as well.
Four years ago, London designer Zandra Rhodes arrived in Washington wearing hand-tooled cowboy boots with her silk chiffon dress. And much of her line carried Western themes in prints including cactus, clay houses and desert flowers. And both the trendy Paris boutique Sacha and a top American shoe fashion firm, Joan and David, adapted cowboy heels for a group of their shoes.
Last season Yves Saint Laurent took the hand-tooling from boots and belts and applied it to leather jackets. And when fashion mavens in Paris and New York started to wear cowboy boots with their sables and suits, Saint Laurent and others picked up and promoted mid-calf high-heeled fashion boots that sold moderately well this season.
There is apparently no limit to the price of a pair of boots. Lucchese offers an all-alligator boot for $1400 (with a matching belt for $165), but has made a special knee-high version for Johnny Cash for $2200, and a gold boot with spurs for Arlene Dahl with a reported price tag of $5,000.
At Counts Western, the price ranges from $42 for an Acme to $300 for an anteater boot from Tony Lama. And Charles Counts, the store's boot specialist, says the best sellers are $80 to $100 boots with the classic pointed toe and the slanty heel.
(Pointy toes were developed as "roach killers" and the slanted "dogging" heel helps the cowboy slide without his heels getting dug into the ground when he is lassoing a calf.)
The local Neiman-Marcus carries only two boots styles, both Lucchese. The best seller, at $210, is among the five best selling styles in the whole shoe department.
Exotic skins can boost the price of boots more than the fancy workmanship -- the rarer the skin the higher the price. Anteater, brushed Italian goat, lizard in several natural colors, turtle, alligator, otter, water buffalo and elephant have their fanciers.
But the biggest price is paid by the poor ostrich. According to a spokesman for Lucchese, and ostrich whose skin will become a boot is first anesthetized and then plucked. It's kept alive until the skin heals so that the resulting will be without holes and therefore waterproof.