Tuesday, January 10, 2012

American Cowboy Chaps: Then and Now

By Charlotte Raby
Sitting on Laura Ingall's steps

 For everyone who loves western romances, no cowboy fantasy would be complete without envisioning (at least once) our heroic wrangler in full Wild West regalia, which, of course, always includes chaps.

 Many sources consider the historical beginning of chaps to have started with Mexican Vaqueros in the 1800’s, but really, they were used over thirty thousand years ago and evolved into what we consider them to be today.

A BREED APART by Charlotte Raby.
If you’re in the mood for a contemporary western romance full of rough and tumble wranglers, find my novel, A Breed Apart here:

Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/A-Breed-Apart-ebook/dp/B004SIQUHC/ref=sr_1_6?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1325351788&sr=1-6
Kindle and other formats: https://www.smashwords.com/books/search?query=charlotte+raby  
Don't miss the excerpt toward the end of Charlotte's post. And please read her bio, too...you've got to see how much this talented woman does.


Nomadic peoples of the Upper Paleolithic era (30-50 thousand years ago) learned how to make and sew leather into clothing, as evidenced by their cave drawings, leather-scraping tools, and bone and thorn needles discovered in Spain.  These people most likely discovered animal skins on the forest floor which had been tanned naturally by tannins excreted from rotting vegetation. In 2010, archeologists found tangible evidence in the Swiss Alps: leather leggings created during the Neolithic period. They were 4200 years old, made from goat skin, and tanned with birch bark.  Prehistoric people gave us the concepts of making and sewing leather, as well as dyeing, bleaching, and decorating it.

 Now fast forward to the 1500’s. The Plains and Eastern Native American tribes had been sewing and wearing leather clothing, including leggings, for quite some time. The leggings evolved from hides with forelegs tied at the ankle and hind legs either tied the waist or tucked into belts to fitted styles. They were cut and sewn, first with a front seam, then later with a side seam to aid horseback riding. In 1534, Louisiana was a French colony; Mountain men travelled extensively, interacting with many Native American tribes, and most likely took the idea of leather leggings and passed it along. Although Louisiana was ceded to Spain and Britain in 1762, the French continued to settle the land through the mid 1800’s.

 Enter the Mexican Vaqueros. They initially used thick hide as an apron tied to the saddle horn that covered the horse’s breast and rider’s legs. These were called Arma (weapon, armor). Eventually, Armitas were created, which tied around the leg, extending to just below the knee and covering only the exposed part of the leg.  Later, Armitas became like short trousers one would step into and pull up.  In the 1840’s these evolved into what we know of today as chaps and were called chaparreras and chaparajos (the j sounds like h).  The root of these words is chapa, meaning sheet; the word chapara follows, which means plate.
Although a strict Spanish pronunciation of chaps would give a hard ch sound, we can’t forget French influence on languages and cultures throughout the American West (and I would be interested in exploring chappen from 1275 Middle English and Dutch! But later.). The Spanish Chapara translates to plaque in French, which translates to plate in English. French and Spanish are closely related Romance Languages; therefore, French influence explains why in the American West, chaps is pronounced with a soft ch as in Charlemagne.  

The four styles of chaps from the 1800’s have changed very little since then: Below: Shotgun Chaps
Shotgun chaps, so named because the long tight fitting legs resemble shotgun barrels, were made to step into and were tight and often difficult to remove. Later, buckles and snaps were used, but today most come with a full length zipper along the outer leg. They were made from the leather of deer, elk, calf, goat, or wild animals. Today, they’re also made using nylon and ultra suede fabrics.

Bat Wing chaps (above) are long and tie around the thigh only. They have a wide flap of leather from the knee to the ankle that covers the rider’s boots and spurs and provides greater freedom of movement and ventilation in warmer climes.

Woolies (above) are made of hide with the hair on from buffalo, bear, and Angora goat, and were most often worn in the northern parts of the country, where cowboys needed protection from freezing rain, snow, and frigid temperatures.

Chinks (above) are short chaps, coming to below the knee. Fancy Chinks were worn by women in western shows in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

In the western United States today, Shotgun chaps are worn for dressage and work; Bat Wings are seen in rodeos and western shows, but sometimes still used for work, and Chinks and still worn by working cowboys around the barn and on cattle drives, and by farriers.

Chaps were an important part of a cowboy’s tack, and most cowboys went through two to three sets a year. Today, approximately 50% of cattle drives are accomplished on horseback with the riders wearing chaps, and modern working cowboys wear them around the barn. Of course, all rodeo and show riders wear colorful, fancy chaps. Sewing patterns and various materials can be used by the home-sewer to make her own.  See the sources listed below to read more about chaps and see pictures of historical and modern chaps. 
Newly graduated veterinarian, Kira McGovern, must find a permanent job and residence within three months in order to adopt her orphaned infant niece. A cattle rancher offers her a win-or-lose opportunity, but his sexy, distracting son plans to make sure she fails.

"Kira!" At first he thought she hadn't heard, but a second later, she turned her head and made eye contact. Holt leaned over and stuck out his left arm. Kira nodded and braced herself. With one last look at the bull, she aimed her left arm for Holt's midsection and jumped. Holt grabbed her armpit, swinging her behind him.

The bull lowered his head to gore the horse, and Holt's mare kicked backwards, twisting its rear-end away from danger. Holt almost dropped Kira over the other side, but she seized the back of his collar, ripping it, and dug her nails into his gut. She righted herself, then wrapped her arms around his waist, squeezing the breath out of him. He jabbed his heels into the mare, leaving the bull in a cloud of dust.

By this time, the men reached the area and took turns distracting the animal until the other riders took over and forced him back across the fallen fence. They made a hasty repair, as the bull grew bored and finally trotted away.

Holt slowed his mare to a walk to calm her. Hell, to calm himself and Kira, too. They were quite a distance from the trucks and work area. The horse's slower rhythm eased his heartbeat. After a few minutes, he stopped and pried Kira's hands from his stomach, which stung where she'd torn his skin. He swung his leg over the mare's head and slid to the ground. Dazed, she turned, her arms out, and Holt gently lowered her from the saddle.

He barely got her to the ground before her knees buckled. She fell forward into his arms and Holt kneeled with her, holding her between his legs, her head on his shoulder. She was trembling.

He stroked her hair. "You're okay now."

She looked up, and in her eyes, he saw a shattering emotion. She grabbed the silver ball under her shirt. The chain around her neck strained against her dirt-smudged skin, and all he could think of as they stared at each other was that she was more beautiful than any other creature alive.

"I could hear his breath," she choked out, haltingly. "I could see his nostrils spraying."

With each word, Holt felt and heard her terror increase. He squeezed her upper arms.

"I felt his feet pounding the ground...oh, God..." She sobbed and searched his eyes.

"Shh, you're safe, baby, you're safe." Before he could think, he pressed his lips to hers. She tensed a second, then kissed him back. Their kiss intensified as he emptied the desperation he'd felt in trying to save her onto her warm, soft lips. She opened to him, and he held her tightly as the kiss deepened.

Slowly, they parted, and looked into each other's eyes. Then, she leaned over his thigh and puked.

Holt really needed a cigarette.
Charlotte was born and raised in Arizona, but didn’t realize how much the West was a part of her until she moved away. After earning her engineering degree in Cleveland, Ohio, she moved back to Arizona. She stayed a while but got the itch to explore again so then lived in Virginia, South Carolina, Wyoming, and finally settled (?) in Colorado, where she now lives with her husband, two teen daughters and a sweet dog. She plays the flute with the Denver Pops, is on the board and various committees for the Golden Concert Choirs, runs her own custom sewing and alterations business (charlottesthimble.com), and writes (charlotteraby.com).

     (Dress Clothing of the Plains Indians by Ronald P. Kock; University of OK press, 1977)

      (“Leather Fashionable in Prehistoric Times” by Dan Vergano, June 8, 2010)


  1. I have some old style horse riding chaps which use on re-enactments days. It is a great laugh and really give you a insight into what the west was like in the past.

  2. Cool! Can we see a picture somewhere? :)

  3. Hi Charlotte,
    Enjoyed your post so much. I never thought of the leather wear of prehistoric man being the beginning of Chaps, but of course it makes sense. :-) My father's father wore Woolies on his small ranch in Montana when my dad was very young. I have a few photos of him in his ranching garb including the Woolies, while he was working with horses. Good to know the name of those pale-colored wool chaps. Thanks!

  4. Chaps were a must in the west, muchof the land was not cultivated and could injure the legs easily. I often try to picture how wild the west really looked back then. And how much work it took to make it look so wonderful today.
    Love and blessings

  5. Wow, I had no idea a cowboy could go through two or three sets a year -- that really IS serious work!

  6. Congrats on the book, Charlotte. I love the excerpt, the info, and the photos. I loved the chaps worn by the wranglers on our wagon train trip around the Tetons. The guys explained their purpose, very educational.

  7. I don't know why chaps on a guy are so sexy, but they are. I did have a "discussion" recently on the pronunciation of chaps. Thanks for proving me right. LOL! Loved the post.

  8. Thank you Sweethearts for a fun blog day, and thanks to everyone for the comments!

  9. Wow, what a great blog! And congrats on your book! Hubby still has an old set of chaps up in the closet with his saddles, and now I'm curious. I may have to pull them out to see exactly what type they are.

  10. Hi Charlotte, What a great article on the leggings. My cowboys live during the gold rush so maybe a couple of them might look mighty fine in a pair of them.

    Nice to meet you. It does sound like you a happy and active life. Good luck with your writing and all your other adventures.

  11. I love to hear about real chaps in the closet, or Jeanmarie's memories of her grandfather wearing woolies! It keeps it alive, doesn't it? Now I want to know what kind are in Lauri's closet! I think both sets of chaps should go on the wall as wall-art now. :) And yes, all cowboys look mighty fine in chaps. Oh yeah....

  12. I had a pair of shotgun chaps from when I used to show.

  13. Charlotte, you are one busy lady. How do you accomplish so much?

    In our area, we sometimes see men in chaps (chinks) when they come to town on an errand. I love seeing them and am glad I live in cowboy country. :-)

  14. Caroline - when I lived in Wyoming (Casper) we saw cowboys, and my husband was lucky enough to see a real cattle drive. Some cowboys were on horseback, and some were on ATVs! Also in WY, I was corrected a couple of times (by genuine horse-women)when I pronounced chaps with the hard ch instead of the soft ch. As far as getting a lot done, I feel that until recently I've been sprinting, but due to health concerns, I'm learning to pace myself, and maximize the benefits I get for my time and energy investments. Today, I'm finishing up some alterations on a beautiful gold gown. Then I have to rest, perhaps practice my flute and then go to an evening rehearsal. :) I'm thinking pacing will be key.

  15. Wow, fantastic blog layout! How long have you been blogging for? you made blogging look easy. The overall look of your web site is wonderful, as well as the content!
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