Motorcyclists the world over not only ride powerful machines, they wear clothing that is designed for their mode of transport. No biker would seriously contemplate getting on a bike without a set of black leathers. Easy to put on and take off thanks to side zips, these body length ‘suits’ provide bikers with all-over protection against inclement weather, and the ever-present hazard of coming off at speed. Other groups as diverse as chainsaw operators, hunters and even bird watchers wear similar protective clothing. All are embracing a tradition that has been familiar to the cowboy of the American West for nearly 150 years.

The motorcyclists leather leggings are similar in design and functionality to those of the cowboy
The motorcyclists’ leather leggings are similar in design and functionality to those of the cowboy

Cowboys call them chaps, from the Spanish chaparejos, and wear them to this day over trousers, usually jeans. While a motorcyclist worries about hard tarmac, the cowboy, particularly in the south-western states of America and north-eastern Mexico, is more concerned with natural, thorny hazards. These include cactus, sagebrush and the small, shrubby mesquite. The extra layer, made of leather, offers the cowboy greater traction to saddle and animal than any other fabric. It is no accident that bronco riders at rodeos, and rejoneadores, the bullfighters on horseback in Spain, wear them. The extra layer also helps to delay wear and tear and extend the lifespan of a cowboy’s jeans.

There is no one single type of chap. It’s a garment adapted by its users to suit the conditions in which they work. The original version was worn by Mexican and Spanish cowboys (vaqueros) who worked on the colonial haciendas of the eighteenth century. They simply strapped two pieces of cowhide to the horn of a saddle and wrapped it over the horse’s back and their legs.

As these vaqueros ventured north into what is now California, and into the Rocky Mountains, they modified such a crude garment. The new version was called armitas, from the Spanish word arma or armour, meaning shield and the diminutive ita, meaning little. As if putting on a pair of trousers, the cowboy stepped into short leggings made of lightweight leather – elkskin, deerskin or whatever came to hand. The legs were encased from thigh down to 4 or 5 inches below the knee so as to almost touch the top of the boot. A short fringe edged the top, bottom and sides, and the whole outfit was held up by a rudimentary fringed apron tie with pockets, also made of leather.

Today’s armitas are less cumbersome than their predecessors, sporting leather buttons down one side that allow ease of access. But they still contain no metal, echoing California’s lack of metal works in those early years. Cowboys and vets, who spend much of their time working on their knees, enjoy the flexibility these over-garments allow. They also appreciate that in California’s hot, dry climate, they allow the air to circulate and therefore the sweat to evaporate.

Closely related to armitas, and popular today with trail riders and other professionals, are chinks, also known as ‘half chaps’ or ‘chapettes’. These heavy leather protectors start at the ankle but stop within a couple of inches of the knee. Secured on the upper thigh by two zips or hook loop fasteners, and finished with a single or double-layered fringe around the edges, they are designed to be worn over short paddock boots.

Leggings worn at rodeos are often embellished but they still serve the same purpose - protecting the cowboy from impact with hard objects
Leggings worn at rodeos are often embellished but they still serve the same purpose – protecting the cowboy from impact with hard objects

Cowboys working in the rugged Rocky Mountains and wilds of Canada, or the vast open ranges, were mostly concerned with rain, wind and snow. Invariably travelling long distances, they needed a garment that trapped and retained the body heat. Consequently the shotgun, sometimes called stovepipe, was created. The wearer steps into leggings that offer total wrap-around protection. Although the legs are joined, each is fashioned from a single piece of leather that fits snugly against the skin, and is fastened by zippers that run the full length of the outer rim from thigh to ankle, while at the bottom the leather ‘flares out’ to accommodate the arch of a boot. As the open ranges came to an end in the 1880s and the cowboy found himself working on foot more than in the saddle, the demand for shotgun chaps declined. They live on today, less on the range and more at rodeos and in competitions, embellished with buckles and other additions purely for show.

But the cowboy was still required to travel great distances. He needed something that combined the qualities of armitas leggings with the durability of shotguns. The answer was the evocatively-named batwings. Made of leather, they covered the entire leg from hip to boot and were joined by a belt. They differed from the shotgun in a number of ways. They had no ‘seat’ and no join at the crotch, and were secured around the upper thigh by two or three straps that snapped or buckled together. The cut on these chaps was much wider and the flared bottoms more extravagant than on their close relative. They remain popular with the cowboy and a more flamboyant version is a familiar sight at rodeos and other public events.

Chaps are still a vital component of the cowboy’s dress code the world over from Canada to Australia, where they make chaps using oilskin. They also continue to evolve. Versions using modern materials such as kevlar, ultrasuede & vinyl are available. A completely separate sub-culture marrying leather with fetish fashion has emerged, in which aficionados dispense with trousers and wear tight-fitting chaps over an immodest codpiece made of leather, vinyl or rubber.

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