“His and hers” sex roles went beyond clothing. Toys, games, books, sports (or lack thereof) and just about everything else in our surroundings in the 1950s were coded “male” or “female”. But actual little girls could — and did — cross that boundary. We played with our brothers’ trains and joined the neighborhood gang for rounds of tag and Red Rover. And we played hours of cowboys and Indians in full regalia complete with toy six-shooters.
Dress-up play is probably as old as clothing itself. We have ample evidence of the joy that children take in borrowing adult hats, shoes, and other items, and experimenting with grown-up cosmetics. Parents’ Magazine suggested “simple dress-up clothes” for children from two to four years, and reassured parents that “cross-dressing at this age was not a cause for concern. From four to eight years, their list includes more specific costumes based on occupations (fireman, nurse) and cowboy outfits. Of all of these, cowboy and western-styled clothing was far and away the most popular, and had been for a generation.
While a child could play the part just by adding a bandanna and wide-brimmed hat to any play clothes, ready-made cowboy suits, complete with hat, guns, and sometimes even a lariat, were the gold standard, at least in my neighborhood. These had been available from mail order companies like Sears and Montgomery Ward since the early twentieth century, along with military styles. The earliest ones were intended for boys, but girls’ versions - cowgirls and “Indian princesses” soon appeared as well. Movie cowboys like Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, and Roy Rogers loaned their names and signatures to some of the “styles”, and the synergy of Saturday western matinees and dress-up play proved to be a powerful sales boost. Television only increased their influence. By 1951, fan clubs like Hopalong Cassidy’s Troopers and Roy Rogers Rider Club boasted memberships in the millions. Roy Rogers and his wife Dale Evans were the brand ambassadors for Sears western wear through the 1970s.
While the prewar styles were designed for school-aged children, Baby Boom toddlers were included as well. There were also many more girls’ outfits, which, unlike earlier styles, offered trousers as well as skirts, and toy guns as well. (Oddly, two-gun holsters were more commonly found in boys’ outfits.) Like other play clothes, these western styles came in deep colors - red, brown, navy - never pastels.
Which leads me to my story of The Best Christmas Ever, the year I got exactly what I asked for: a cowboy suit with a two-gun holster. I remember being asked more than once -though not by whom - “don’t you want a cowgirl outfit?”, and vehemently repeating “A COWBOY SUIT WITH A TWO-GUN HOLSTER”. Christmas Eve, when we usually got new winter pajamas, I got the vest and pants, in black cotton twill with white vinyl fringe. Christmas morning, under the tree and not wrapped (Santa-style, in my family), was the two-gun holster, complete with shiny six-shooters and extra caps. I can only imagine the parental discussion that produced this miracle, and wish I had asked them when I had the chance. But I got what I longed for, and the memory remains bright over sixty years later.