How to Dress Western - A Guide for Visitors and New Calgarians

 Cowboy hats

For many decades now, Calgary has had a tradition of encouraging people to "dress Western" during Stampede week. Many stolid downtown offices allow a 10-day departure from the hum-drum routine of business suits and dress slacks so that their employees can get into the Stampede spirit. You may feel a little awkward or shy about dressing Western. Don't! It's a tradition, and you'll look like a fish out of water if you *continue* to wear your regular business clothing. If you're visiting, you'll miss half the fun of Stampede.

Don't just dress casually, either. Employers might let you get away with it, but they won't be too thrilled about it. A pair of jeans and a rock band t-shirt are not Western dress.

On the other hand, don't take it too seriously. It's not a historic re-enactment (unless you actually are a western history re-enactor, in which case what on earth are you doing reading this?) It's just a tip of the cowboy hat to Western Canada's cowboy history, which is alive and active to this day.

Here are some tips on how to do it, in easy stages and on a budget. And remember, Western clothing never goes out of style, so new Calgarians shouldn't begrudge a modest expenditure.

Dressing Western on the Job

Dressing Western on the job - His safety vest (a job requirement) doesn't stop him from getting into the Stampede spirit!

Stage 1: The Basics

Jeans are an essential which almost everybody already has in their closet already. Add one of the following to make up your first, basic Western outfit.

- a western-style belt

- a denim or plaid or striped button-up long-sleeved shirt (or, in a pinch, a solid red, navy, black, or white t-shirt plus one other Western item)

-a straw cowboy hat

-a bandana neckerchief

Add two or more of those items, and you're really looking good.

Dress Western A

Dressing Western doesn't mean a whole new wardrobe

Dressing Western 

Stage 2: Accessories (cheap)

Now that you have two basic items, you can add some razzle dazzle. For a fairly small investment, you can really improve your western impression.

-a string (aka Western or bolo) tie is suitable for men or women in collared shirts. Visitors may prefer a souvenir Stampede bolo tie, while new Calgarians will probably prefer something a little more generic. They always fit, they never go out of style, and more adventurous men can wear them every day with a suit in Calgary. (But probably not Toronto.)

-for ladies, a fancy bandana, decorated with beads and silver ornaments, folded into a triangle to make a fancy neckerchief (tied at the back of the neck, with the triangle in front). If you can't find one, a local bead shop will probably be able to show you how to make this quick & easy accessory.

-for men, a nice Western style belt buckle. Western belts are designed so that the buckles fasten to the belt with snaps, rather than being sewed on. So if you find a great buckle (maybe it's vintage, second-hand, or a hand-me down), but the belt is too short or too long, you can easily move put it on a Western belt of the right length.

-for ladies, beaded earrings from the Indian Village on the Stampede grounds. If you have long hair, look for a matching beaded hair slide. Outside of Stampede Week, you can look for Native beaded items at the Glenbow Museum Shop and, in Banff, at the Sign of the Goat Trading Post, near the Administration Building and gardens.

-for ladies, silver or turquoise jewellery and/or hair ornaments.

-for men and women, it's interesting to note that some styles of brown leather deck shoes look surprisingly "Western", but you will probably get more use out of them than you will from cowboy boots.

Dress Western B

Stage 3: The Home Stretch

These are the final touches that will make you look and feel like a true Calgarian during Stampede Week. You needn't get it all at once, but picking up one of these items every year will help.

-a good-quality cowboy hat. Make sure it fits perfectly, so it won't fall off (too big) or pop off (too small). Straw is better for the summer, but felt will last longer. Neutral colours never go out of style, but ladies may find that pink and light blue are almost as reliable. Only little kids wear red cowboy hats.

-a fancy Western shirt from a Western clothing shop

-cowboy boots. Buy these a week or two before Stampede, and then wear them at home until Stampede starts so that you're used to them before you are wearing them for a full day or week. If they really pinch, you bought the wrong size. Don't worry--take them to a shoemaker to be stretched; it's amazing how much leather can be stretched. Cowboy boots are for both men and ladies; a neutral colour is a wise choice. Real cowboys never tuck their jeans into their boots.

-a longish denim skirt

-a denim vest, for men or ladies

-a floral brocade vest, western cut, for ladies

-a nice hat band of leather or braided horsehair


Stage 4: The Ultimate in Clothing and Accessories

If you look forward to Stampede every year, ordinarily wear designer labels, or you are an Alberta MP or MLA, you really should consider getting:

-a great-quality cowboy hat. For men or ladies. A rabbit or beaver felt cowboy hat will last you the rest of your life, and can be reblocked if it loses its shape. A 5X beaver hat can be passed on to your children and grandchildren.

-a great-quality sterling silver hand-engraved belt buckle. Most styles are man-sized. A piece of wearable art that says "I'm a real cowboy" (even if you're not).

-a leather skirt

-a leather vest, for men or ladies

-a short Western-style jacket, in denim, leather, or floral brocade

Stage 5: Right past perfect

Here are some items which should never occur in your Stampede wardrobe, unless you're a working cowboy, or a small child.

-six-shooter (real or reproduction or toy)


-red straw hat

-baseball hat

-sombrero, poncho or serape

On a Budget?

During Stampede Week, all kinds of shops sprout Western clothing and accessories: the Bay, ladies' clothing stores, souvenir shops. You will also find lots of places on the Stampede grounds where you can get a wide variety of Western items. After Stampede, you will find that the places which don't usually sell Western items have reduced their prices to clear out any remaining stock. This is a good chance to stock up for next year while being kind to your wallet.

For the major Western wear shops (Lammle's, Riley & McCormick's, Grand Saddlery in Cochrane), their slow season is January through March. Watch for bargains.

If you don't tell people you found your Stampede wardrobe at a thrift store, who's going to know? Western wear might wear out, but it never goes out of style.  Check out Goodwill, Women In Need Society, Value Village, and of course the Salvation Army thrift shops.

If you don't feel comfortable with thrift shops, why not look into vintage clothing?

Vintage & Retro Western Flair 

Looking good for less is chic and looking great is easy when you add a few pieces from the past. Stampede is about having fun and new boots can cut in on your dance time.  Boots that have been " just broke in a bit" can add comfort and flair and can be found at a vintage shop for about a third the cost of new boots. You don't need to be serious, country kitsch such as 1950's square dance dresses or skirts are hugely popular as are the fantastic retro snap button shirts. Buckskin fringed jackets, chaps and spurs can make you a cowboy for a day...or ten.