I’M SITTING ON A PLANE IN Phoenix, Ariz., cowboy boot–clad legs crossed beneath a Navajo- inspired blanket that still carries the scent of campfire. Given that I refuse to remove the dust-covered suede fringed jacket and high-waisted Levi’s I’ve worn for three days straight, I’m roasting. I can feel the other Toronto-bound passengers staring at me. Dressed in sensible chinos and polos, they’re undoubtedly thinking, Man, she really went for it.
After earning my spurs at a dude ranch in the small town of Wickenburg—shooting guns, riding ponies, enjoy ing epic sunsets during tractor-pulled hayrides and line dancing under the moonlight of the Sonoran Desert—I’ve taken to the life of a cowgirl like a horse to oats. I’m not the only one. After
Karl Lagerfeld’s recent jaunt through the rodeo for Chanel’s Métiers d’Art Paris-Dallas collection in Texas, western influences showed up at Alexander Wang’s prefall presentation, in the form of knee-high cowboy boots, and at Polo Ralph Lauren’s fall show, where models trotted down the runway in southwestern-inspired prints. But for this unapologetic urbanite, the west only got interesting after I truly lived it.
I’d come to Rancho de Los Caballeros, a 20,000-acre ranch resort in Wickenburg, a historic gold-mining town that resembles a Disney theme park (minus the irony), three days prior. I arrived wearing my greenhorn uni- form of black peg-leg Acne trousers and a desert-inappropriate white silk blouse; my fellow companions were a motley crew of stylesetting city slickers, including Paper Magazine’s Mickey Boardman, street-style photo-bait Natalie Joos and Julia Sarr-Jamois, and a few bombshells from American, Mexican and Brazilian Vogue. For the next few days, we’d be celebrating the 80th anniversary of Lady Levi’s, the first jeans made specifically for women, whose provenance can be traced to 1930s life on dude ranches just like this one.
Back then, the popularity of west ern films had reached fever pitch, with studios making matinee idols of screen cowboys like Gene Autry and John Wayne. The interest in all things country soon galloped off camera, and the wealthy and west-obsessed started vacationing at dude ranches to get a taste of the mythology; most notably, well-heeled women from Europe, New York and Connecticut ventured to upscale resorts like Los Caballeros to spend the summer seeking out adventure, or, quite often, love with a local wrangler. By tossing on their fathers’ or husbands’ 501s, the unofficial uniform of the ranch, they found independence that existed entirely outside of their gender roles du jour; at a ranch, a woman could do everything a man could do. She corralled horses and cattle, learned to shoot, explored the flora and fauna of the desert and ate dinner outdoors, sitting side by side with cowboys. These kinds of vacays became so fashionable among the social set that Levi’s spotted a true blue opportunity.
Lady Levi’s, also dubbed 701s, were born in 1934, with Vogue quickly deeming them must-haves for women on the range. Preshrunk for softness and fitted at the waist, they were far better tailored to the female form than boxier 501s.
They were also the original mom jeans, which is why 701s fell out of fashion—and the Levi’s lineup—by the time the bell-bottom-happy ’60s came around. (They were quietly re-released by Levi’s Vintage Collection a few years back.) I don’t get to try on the originals, but I do find a pair of faded 501s in my room at the ranch. After spending a morning wobbling atop a mild-mannered horse named War Bonnett, I meet Lynn Downey.
A devoted denim-head and Levi’s resident historian, Downey is the keeper of the company archive, which houses decades worth of denim, and the woman who wrote the book on Levi’s. (Seriously—there was a copy waiting for me in my room alongside the jeans.)
Wearing rubber gloves while holding up a rare pair of 701s from 1939, Downey explains the importance of the ranch experience for women’s liberation in the ’30s. The mere act of putting on a pair of jeans, she tells me, was “rebellious” in itself; at the time, denim was the domain of working-class men, not fancy upper-crust ladies.
She tells me about Pearl Baker, who ran a Utah ranch called Robbers Roost in the 1930s and was Downey’s pen pal until her death a few years ago. “In the ’30s, Baker wore men’s jeans to work on her ranch, and then she’d go into this funky little nowhere town and people would sneer at her for wearing them in public,” she says. “You were not going to walk down Park Avenue in jeans in 1934. But women who would come to a ranch like Rancho de Los Caballeros knew they would not get sneered at.”
And so, pulling on a pair of jeans became a way to buck societal expectations. But for these denim-loving dudines, personal style was still paramount: arguably, they were the originators of high-low dressing. “They would wear a lovely blouse with their jeans; maybe their boots were really expensive,” Downey told me. “This kind of ranch was the birthplace of women’s jeans culturally, but also for Levi’s as a company.”
Eighty years later, none of us visiting the ranch thinks twice about tossing on our jeans as we set off for the rest of the afternoon. When we gather for a skeet-shooting excursion, we’re more concerned with the heft of the double-barrelled shotguns our instructor, a curmudgeonly gunman named Norm, presents us with. When we take aim at the tiny neon disks that shoot across the horizon, we cheer each other on in sisterly camaraderie. (I leave with the top score: 9/25.)
Later that night, our group convenes for an open-air cookout, where chef Jessica Boncutter from San Francisco’s buzzy Bar Jules puts together a locally sourced feast—cactus salad, grilled lamb and deliriously creamy grits served with surprisingly delicious Arizona rosé. Afterwards, we gather around a fire, toasting homemade marshmallows and laughing as we take liberties with the lyrics of traditional country hymns. The next day, we’ll beat a hazy retreat back to reality, but for now, we’re all struck by how this southwestern escape for women in the ’30s is—for entirely different reasons—just as refreshing a change of pace for digital-age fashion editors.
Back on the plane, I think about my own jeans tucked under that blanket. They still carry a tinge of rebellion: not just a wardrobe mainstay, but a blank canvas for self-expression (judgy passengers be damned). Like the women who wore them first, I realize that the freedom of getting out of your comfort zone paves the way for self-discovery. And that’s why the west was fun.