22 Apr Reinventing Cowboy Chic: Yee-Haw Couture and the rise of the Black Cowboy Aesthetic
From the hoof-like Tabi boot to Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road, the resurgence of the modern cowboy aesthetic is continuing to thrive in the roaring 20s. As you bop to the rhythm of booming trap beats, have you ever stopped to consider why cowboy boots have become cool again?
The cowboy aesthetic is mainly known for Western-inspired leather, fringe, and earthy tones that pay heed to an All-American style reminiscent of early Hollywood’s “Wild West” and traditionally rustic masculinity. While this style is commonly called “Cowboy Chic,” a hybrid version arose as the “Yeehaw Agenda” at the end of the 2010s. The term was coined by pop culture archivist Bri Malandro as a “play on the gay agenda”; a fun and innovative way to describe the melding of 90s Urban Glam (think Janet Jackson and Lil Kim) with Texan style. It also celebrates the iconic cowgirl looks worn by black women from the mid-90s to the early 2000s.
However, from its humble inception on the pages of Tumblr and indie magazines, styles we have come to know and love, such as the cowboy boot, directly draw inspiration from a broader Rodeo culture. From the reinterpretation of chaps and boots to hats reincarnated in lush and experimental fabrics, textures, and colours, we’ve seen it on everyone—our favorite ‘Eco-Hottie Meghan Thee Stallion, country queen Kacey Musgraves, and Houston-native Solange.
“‘[T]he image of a Black woman in a cowboy hat at this moment—historically, politically, culturally—it’s the antithesis of an old white dude in a MAGA hat.’”
Beyond the witty sheriff memes and the use of the infamous cowboy hat emoji, the current cowboy aesthetic speaks to a more profound cultural subversion that’s at play. The aesthetic has historically prioritized white men and performative masculinity, often associated with Manifest Destiny. Instead, the urban cowboy aesthetic centres othered bodies, primarily black men and women, as well as members of the LGBTQ+ community in recognition of their power, strength, and beauty. For black women specifically, it allows them not only to reclaim their sexuality, but also actively confronts the culture of misogyny and sexism within the aesthetic. Futhermore, it boldly reasserts the importance of showing diverse black femininities, especially within the current American social-political climate. As Associate Editor of Man Repeller Emma Bracy writes in her column Politics of Style, “the image of a Black woman in a cowboy hat at this moment—historically, politically, culturally—it’s the antithesis of an old white dude in a MAGA hat.”
No mere damsels, women of all bodies, experiences, and sexualities are showing up and showing out in fringe, glitter, and everything in between and, in doing so, are reclaiming their space and influence within the pop culture landscape.
While black and queer faces may appear new to the “Yee-Haw Agenda,” there exists a long and diverse legacy of black cowboys and cowgirls as the result of a large population of black freedmen working as labourers in the cattle ranching industries in the American South after the American Civil War. According to Rolling Stone, “25% of workers in the ranch cattle industry during the late nineteenth century were, in fact, black. Even the word “cowboy” itself had roots as a slur towards these black laborers.” Their workwear was birthed from a need for functionality, comfort, and longevity. Beyond the scope of black cowboy aesthetics, ranching culture in the Americas draws on various influences, from traditional herding practices of Indigenous peoples to Spanish vaqueros, now more commonly seen in Mexico and throughout Latin America.
Although we often don’t realize it, what we wear, how we present, and how we perceive what’s stylish is primarily influenced by politics and cultural events. Clothing can be a marker of identity, bring back nostalgia, or be used as a political statement. As such, understanding the current political and social climate of the United States over the last decade and the impact it’s had on style is crucial to understanding the political nature of the black ‘cowboy ’aesthetic—the politics of style is nothing new. Arguably, with the resurgence of nationalist and xenophobic sentiment, especially in the American South, reinterpreting a historically white aesthetic is a form of resistance through visibility.
“[Cowboy aesthetic] inherently questions the histories of race and acceptability. Who gets to be a cowboy? Who has access to these histories? Whose voices have historically been silenced?”
At its core, the cowboy aesthetic speaks to a larger question surrounding identity politics. In all its multifaceted representations, the style inherently questions the histories of race and acceptability. Who gets to be a cowboy? Who has access to these histories? Whose voices have historically been silenced? In reality, much of the culture of ranching, rodeo, and cowboys prevalent within the pop culture space have erased the various custodians of the aesthetic, many of whom are not white or financially privileged. By centring black and brown bodies, the “Yee-Haw Agenda” cleverly allows individuals to reclaim cultural authorship through preconceived notions surrounding class, gender, and sexuality. This reclamation is necessary because Black and urban aesthetics are often denied in pop culture until non-minority audiences adopt them. As the Yee-Haw Agenda becomes public domain, it is important to remember and honour its roots—recognizing those who created the aesthetics that allow us to be our best selves, paying creatives their dues, and writing their names back into history.