When Jeremy Scott showed his Fall 2016 collection in New York last week, the theme was instantly familiar, with its cartoony Max Headroom and rockabilly guitar prints, glitzy high-heeled cowboy boots, and obligatory cow print denim. Scott, whose obsession with pop culture is well known and its history nearly the sole inspiration for his designs, called it “Cowboys and Poodles,” after one of punk and new wave’s most whimsical fashion trends.
In the swingin’ 1980s, Cowboys and Poodles was the name of a popular vintage store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, with an aesthetic that presaged that decade’s obsession with 1950s rockabilly culture. Selling vintage cowboy gear from a storefront designed to resemble a 1950s carwash, Cowboys and Poodles would eventually spawn its own style of dress: essentially, cowpoke gear as seen through the technicolor lens of ‘80s neons and an obsession with the Memphis art movement.
In Los Angeles Magazine’s look back at how the 1980s shaped LA culture, writer Alison Martino remembered:
It also carried 1960s collectibles as Beatles-inspired boots for guys and pointy-toed snakeskin pumps for gals and a popular favorite of GoGos lead singer, Belinda Carlisle. Other desirable finds included vintage ties, jewelry, sunglasses, pedal pushers, retro furniture, vintage tableware and rockabilly fashions and vintage Paco Rabanne earrings. I’ll never forget purchasing a pair of pointed pony skin pumps with a matching concho purse.
Cowboys and Poodles (lovingly shortened to “CowPoo”) had an instant impact among punks because of its location, and soon the look—a little bit city, a little bit country—went as viral as anything could in those days. (In the mid-1980s, an art gallery by the name of Cowboys and Poodles opened in San Francisco; Scott showed t-shirts with bubbly Hollywood logos.) This video of the Go-Gos performing “We Got the Beat” on Solid Gold in ‘82 shows Carlisle CowPoo’ing it in a flossy cowboy shirt, a Western concho belt, and spiky pumps.
It also helped that cowpunk was a popular Los Angeles subgenre during this era, with bands like X, Wall of Voodoo, and especially The Cramps embracing and propelling the look. Dive into the Cramps’s stage costumes, and you’ll find lead members Poison Ivy and Lux Interior (RIP) wearing fringed metallics and cowgirl glam similar to the bright pieces Scott crafted for his CowPoo collection.
Eventually, Cowboys and Poodles had a ripple effect beyond the underground—thanks in large part to artist Gary Panter, who spent his time in the LA punk scene of the ‘70s and ‘80s and brought the aesthetic he honed there to the set of Pee Wee’s Playhouse, which he designed in 1986.
Pee Wee’s Playhouse was decorated with its own luxe interiors, in bright pink and red and teal color schemes that invoked the ‘50s and ‘60s (there’s that Memphis art movement again). It’s a palette in the same family as Scott’s collection...
...And of course it spawned the most iconic representative of the Cowboys and Poodles look who ever lived: Cowboy Curtis. Played by Lawrence Fishburne, Curtis was resplendent in metallic chaps, fringed vests and indispensable splotches of iconic cow print.
While the Cowboys and Poodles look generally faded as clothes became darker (blame Rei Kawakubo), grungier (blame Seattle) and more minimal (blame Calvin Klein), its legend reverberated across decades and around the world. In 2003, I was thrift shopping in East Berlin when I crossed paths with a vintage shop called “Cowboyz & Poodles” that held true to the original Melrose Cowboys and Poodles aesthetic—Western shirts, cowboy boots, battered jeans in colors that popped. (Incidentally, or perhaps not, one year later I named my blog after it.) The fact that cowboy lore still reverberates is absolutely tied to classic film, and the romantic premium placed on the whistling loner riding a freakin horse across the open plains. But it’s also just that cowboys looked cool as hell—and even better with a punky, renegade twist.
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