Chaps in the Old West

Chaps were both utilitarian and ornamental in our Old west. Like so much of cowboying accouterments, chaps were introduced by Spanish Vaqueros out of Mexico. Chaps were an essential piece of equipment and protected the rider from the slashing of branches, thorns, and occasional horns and served the double purpose of keeping away rain and elements

Originally, simple pieces of leather called armas (shields) they were simply attached to the upper part of the legs by thongs.  The later chaparajos; (named after the thorny Chaparral plant) were built to hang from either side of the rider’s saddle, and lashed to the wearer’s legs with leather thongs.

As cowboying progressed in the Americas, so did chaps; evolving into gear that could be worn like leggings, called Shotgun chaps.  These chaps, shaped with two straight up and down tubes with no seat, had a slight flare at the ankles and were worn attached to a curved belt about the waist.  These had the convenience of being a step into style but were difficult to get into and out of while wearing boots and spurs.

Later chaps, batwings, were shaped pieces of hide folding over and attaching to itself behind and a bit above the knee.  These batwings had a great deal more flexibility and became popular during the later part of the 19th century.  They were often decorated with fringing and conches.  About this time inside  and outside pockets were also added to chaps to give the wearer a place to put tobacco, money, gloves or anything else that needed to go into a pocket.  Chaps had become a standard piece of cowboy clothing!

Northern riders preferred the woolies style of chaps, these hair on outside chaps were made of various material, buffalo and elk primarily.  Woolies were warm and water resistant.  They were also joined and buckled above the knee. Woolies were embraced by rodeo riders in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

The popular chinks were developed towards the middle half of the 20th century, these knee length were used mostly in the southern areas.   Chinks were cooler but still allowed for leg protection while allowing even more freedom of movement.

All chap styles have developed over the years, from practical use riding the range of the west to rodeo styled beauty, with personalized bling, and are still to this day an essential bit of clothing for the cowboy.

Studying any aspect of the old west, gives me an opportunity to immerse myself further into the legends, romance, and just down and dirty nitty gritty of our countries marvelous peoples, all heroes, great and small!


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