Why Were Cowboys Wearing Big Denim Cuffs?

Have you ever wondered why cowboys during the ’30 and ’40 were wearing their jeans with big cuffs? You will see those cuffs most of the times on a lot of old cowboys pictures from the Old West.

Cowboy with high denim cuffs. Image from Life Magazine.

To start with is the fact that fabrics which were used for those jeans were shrink-to-fit. This means that the fabric wasn’t sanforized. Sanforized denim fabrics are treated at the denim mill to reduce shrinking. Normally sanforized fabrics will shrink around 1 – 3%.

Unsanforized denim fabrics, also known as loomstate or shrink-to-fit, don’t get any treatment at the denim mill. This means that these fabrics will shrink up around 10% after the first wash. When you buy a pair of jeans made with unsanforized demim fabric you will have to keep in mind to size up your waistsize by two and the length of your jeans at least with 3 inches.

Levi’s Jeans made a guideline about how to treat your shrink-to-fit pair of jeans.

The jeans from the cowboys period were made with unsanforized denim fabrics. Cowboys were wearing their jeans every day; day in, day out. They didn’t wash their jeans so much, so they had to cuff their jeans because of the long length. The cuffs weren’t a fashion statement, or because of the fact that they want to show that their jeans were made of a selvedge fabric. It was just as a practical thing. But as the jeans were cuffed and those cowboys were most of the time on their horses they used those (high) cuffs as a handy place to keep several personal belongings as their cigarettes and tobacco. For the cowboys it was easier to put these into their cuffs instead of their saddle bags.

Cowgirls wearing their jeans with denim cuffs (two on the left).

Vintage cowboy advertising with high cuffs by Levi’s Jeans.

Later boys in high school would use the cuffs as extra pockets too. They used it for their coins, candy, and even pencils. Nowadays you will see the cuffs again at the true denimheads who want to show that their jeans are made with selvedge fabrics produced on shuttle looms. Those selvedge fabrics are a symbol of authentic, durable, and high-quality made pairs of jeans. Those jeans are part of the denim community, and the wearers are the modern cowboys.

Denim cuffs on a selvage pair of Japan Blue jeans. Pic by Cultizm store.

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Written by Wouter
I'm the founder of Long John. Next to running this daily magazine I'm working as a freelance marketing specialist for brands and retail. Specialized in denim.