American Cowboy Chaps: Then and Now

By Charlotte Raby

 For everyone who loves western romances, no cowboy fantasy would be complete without envisioning (at least once) our heroic wrangler in full Wild West regalia, which, of course, always includes chaps.

 Many sources consider the historical beginning of chaps to have started with Mexican Vaqueros in the 1800’s, but really, they were used over thirty thousand years ago and evolved into what we consider them to be today.

Nomadic peoples of the Upper Paleolithic era (30-50 thousand years ago) learned how to make and sew leather into clothing, as evidenced by their cave drawings, leather-scraping tools, and bone and thorn needles discovered in Spain.  These people most likely discovered animal skins on the forest floor which had been tanned naturally by tannins excreted from rotting vegetation. In 2010, archeologists found tangible evidence in the Swiss Alps: leather leggings created during the Neolithic period. They were 4200 years old, made from goat skin, and tanned with birch bark.  Prehistoric people gave us the concepts of making and sewing leather, as well as dyeing, bleaching, and decorating it.

Native American Leggins

 Now fast forward to the 1500’s. The Plains and Eastern Native American tribes had been sewing and wearing leather clothing, including leggings, for quite some time. The leggings evolved from hides with forelegs tied at the ankle and hind legs either tied the waist or tucked into belts to fitted styles. They were cut and sewn, first with a front seam, then later with a side seam to aid horseback riding. In 1534, Louisiana was a French colony; Mountain men travelled extensively, interacting with many Native American tribes, and most likely took the idea of leather leggings and passed it along. Although Louisiana was ceded to Spain and Britain in 1762, the French continued to settle the land through the mid 1800’s.

 Enter the Mexican Vaqueros. They initially used thick hide as an apron tied to the saddle horn that covered the horse’s breast and rider’s legs. These were called Arma (weapon, armor). Eventually, Armitas were created, which tied around the leg, extending to just below the knee and covering only the exposed part of the leg.  Later, Armitas became like short trousers one would step into and pull up.  In the 1840’s these evolved into what we know of today as chaps and were called chaparreras and chaparajos (the j sounds like h).  The root of these words is chapa, meaning sheet; the word chapara follows, which means plate.

Although a strict Spanish pronunciation of chaps would give a hard ch sound, we can’t forget French influence on languages and cultures throughout the American West (and I would be interested in exploring chappen from 1275 Middle English and Dutch! But . . . later.). The Spanish Chapara translates to plaque in French, which translates to plate in English. French and Spanish are closely related Romance Languages; therefore, French influence explains why in the American West, chaps is pronounced with a soft ch as in Charlemagne.  

The four styles of chaps from the 1800’s have changed very little since then.

Fringed Shotgun Chaps

Shotgun chaps (left), so named because the long tight fitting legs resemble shotgun barrels, were made to step into and were tight and often difficult to remove. Later, buckles and snaps were used, but today most come with a full length zipper along the outer leg. They were made from the leather of deer, elk, calf, goat, or wild animals. Today, they’re also made using nylon and ultra suede fabrics.

Batwing Chaps

Bat Wing chaps (left) are long and tie around the thigh only. They have a wide flap of leather from the knee to the ankle that covers the rider’s boots and spurs and provides greater freedom of movement and ventilation in warmer climes.


Woolies (right) are made of hide with the hair on from buffalo, bear, and Angora goat, and were most often worn in the northern parts of the country, where cowboys needed protection from freezing rain, snow, and frigid temperatures.


Chinks (left) are short chaps, coming to below the knee. Fancy Chinks were worn by women in western shows in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

In the western United States today, Shotgun chaps are worn for dressage and work; Bat Wings are seen in rodeos and western shows, but sometimes still used for work, and Chinks and still worn by working cowboys around the barn and on cattle drives, and by farriers.

Chaps were an important part of a cowboy’s tack, and most cowboys went through two to three sets a year. Today, approximately 50% of cattle drives are accomplished on horseback with the riders wearing chaps, and modern working cowboys wear them around the barn. Of course, all rodeo and show riders wear colorful, fancy chaps. Sewing patterns and various materials can be used by the home-sewer to make her own.  See the sources listed below to read more about chaps and see pictures of historical and modern chaps. 


     (Dress Clothing of the Plains Indians by Ronald P. Kock; University of OK press, 1977)

      (“Leather Fashionable in Prehistoric Times” by Dan Vergano, June 8, 2010)

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