When I started visiting Kerrville, Texas, in 1996, one of the first things I did was to buy a snap shirt, or “western shirt,” as they’re also called.
I called it a “pearl snap shirt” at the time, because it sounded more authentic. But many snap shirts later, I realized that you don’t need the “pearl” to indicate what it is and, frankly, the snaps aren’t made with pearl anyway. So why exaggerate.
This article will shed some light on what to look for in a snap shirt, what to avoid, and where to get one.
The briefest of histories
I’ll keep this short.
My Texan wife said soon after I bought my first western shirt, “Only cowboys and dorks wear snap shirts.” I was and am still not a cowboy. That leaves me with few options.
But for cowboys they were made. Frontier life in the early 19th century demanded a shirt that was durable and one that could withstand harsh environments and also the physical activity of a man working a ranch. The first western shirts were made from animal skins.
In the early 1900s, Rockmount Ranch Wear founder Jack Weil added snap closures, so that cuffs and the shirt itself wouldn’t rip when snagged (barbed wire fence, tree branch, longhorn steer, etc.). While I myself prefer a snap closure at the neck, this by and large vanished in favor of the better breathability and functionality of regular buttons.
Current designs and materials (no longer only denim and wool) flourished after WWII.
What to look for in a snap shirt
Snaps, material, and design are key with western shirts.
All the snaps on my shirts over the years have frankly been pretty much the same. They look like faux pearl. I had one long-sleeved shirt that had a snap for the neck closure, and that was one of my favorites, because again, I was going for authenticity. Had I known, I would have realized that “authentic” meant function over form. The other thing to look for is the cuff snaps. Five snaps on the cuff is a big deal and the sign of a nice shirt. My “dress denim” long-sleeved shirt has three snaps. Needless to say, the chest pockets, of which there should be two, must have snaps.
When it comes to material, let’s be honest: just do cotton. If you’re wearing a western shirt, chances are you’re in a warm environment, and you want the fabric to breath. Additionally, it seems that polyester seems simply un-American, although it’s all too common these days anyway. As I mentioned, I have a long-sleeved denim shirt, and even though denim is generally considered casual when trousers are made of them, for some reason wearing a denim snap shirt feels more dressy.
At least that’s what I tell myself.
“I detest polyester.” — Calvin Klein
Now, if you are looking to have one custom-made and price is no object, consider reviewing ProperCloth’s summary of fabrics to choose from cottons that might give your shirt extra flair.
Design in western shirts has been central for quite some time. The “pointed yoke” on these shirts distinguish them from other shirts with similar design.
After that, your choices are purely personal. Options include:
- Flat, uniform color, casual
- Plaid (very popular with Millenials, and in urban settings)
- Fancy, with embroidery
What to avoid
I’ll keep this brief, too.
Don’t do what I did, which was buy a snap shirt to make you look like a cowboy or someone you’re not. My advice is to buy a shirt that is within your budget, has snaps on the front, cuffs, and pockets, and has a design you like. Make sure it has that pointed yoke. Shirts are personal, and western shirts are particularly so. They should express your personality.
So don’t be somebody you’re not.
Where to go to get one
You might be tempted to go straight to Amazon to find one. Resist that urge.
While Amazon has good deals, the quality of shirt in these deals is questionable, and it’s hard to size them right. I personally buy most of my shirts from Billy’s Western Wear here in Kerrville. Wrangler’s is the brand most people choose for not only shirts but also jeans. (You’ll also notice that the men modeling these shirts have them tucked in. This is standard, and the tail on them was made longer years ago, so they wouldn’t come untucked as easily when working on a ranch.)
“We put the snap in western shirts” — Rockmount
Denver-based Rockmount Western Wear “put the snap in western shirts,” and indeed founder Jack Weil did. It was a sartorial game-changer. Don’t make a move before you check here.
Lariat calls itself “Urban Western Wear,” but honestly I see a lot of men around here wearing them. And Kerrville is anything but urban.
If your plans don’t include visiting Kerrville or shopping at Billy’s anytime soon (they also have a store in Boerne), you can go straight to the Wrangler’s site and even shop from the George Strait Collection.
I suppose I wear snap shirts for a couple reasons.
First, they remind me of when I first visited Texas and went to Crider’s Rodeo and Dancehall in Hunt. I wore a relatively new snap shirt I’d bought from a shop on Junction Highway that’s now a hair salon. (A shop with another location in Bandera, Texas, that country singer Jason Aldean has promoted.) I also wore black ankle-length “boots” that I’d purchased in New York City’s East Village from a cobbler whose customer never paid for their repair. I got them for $20, but wearing them was a bit of a scandal for my Texas wife. They never appeared as half-boots because my jeans covered them up. But Karen knew they were there, and that was enough for this to become family lore.
Second, I simply like the freedom of wearing them. It certainly makes putting them on and taking them off easier. And letting the tail hang loose, instead of tucking it in — except for my more dressy navy blue long-sleeved shirt, which I sometimes use for work, especially these days for Zoom calls — gives me a sense of freedom.
Having grown up in New York City, one feels compelled to always wear black — seriously! — and a snap shirt with a fun design gives me license to express more of my individuality.
Get yourself a western shirt, and I’ll see you at the dancehall!