During the COVID–19 lockdown in 2020, glittery pink cowboy hats silently but suddenly cropped up as the latest party accessory. Pinterest fashionistas may already be familiar with the cutesy cowboy aesthetic since Lily–Rose Depp donned one back in 2017, but the Western trend has more recently been adopted by the masses. Even though the pink cowboy hat’s rapid rise and fall feels normal considering the nature of ephemeral modern trends, the glamorization of a traditionally–rugged aesthetic poses the questions: Why cowboys, and why now?
While Depp may have popularized pink cowboy hats as an “it girl” accessory, the fashion industry wasn’t the one to kick off the resurgence of a bygone era in earnest—it was the music industry, and it’s been a long time coming. We’re all familiar with the modernized Western aesthetic in megahit “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, but even more avant–garde artists like Solange paid homage to the Black cowboys of Almeda, Texas in her art film When I Get Home. Cowboys were even front and center during the 2019 Grammy Awards, when Kacey Musgraves’ pop–country marvel, Golden Hour, became the first country ‘Album of the Year’ winner since Taylor Swift’s Fearless in 2010. She also swept the country category, and her hit song “Space Cowboy” became fashion inspiration for countless Halloween costumes in the following years.
Beyond smaller references and nods to Western culture, artists also conjured the iconic image of cowboys when titling their albums, one being Mac DeMarco’s Here Comes The Cowboy. In Mitski’s critically–acclaimed 2018 album, Be the Cowboy, the Japanese–American indie artist sharply navigates insecurity and adult romance on her own terms. Explaining that the title comes from an “inside joke” with herself, Mitski fights imposter syndrome on the album by asking herself, “What would a white guy say? What would a swaggering cowboy riding into town do in this situation?” Be the Cowboy, even while inspired by a self–referential rhetorical question, resulted in a stunningly vulnerable album featuring the deceptively upbeat and now–TikTok famous track “Nobody.”
Perhaps after months of isolation and lockdown for many of TikTok’s Gen Z users, it’s no surprise that the vulnerability of “Nobody” or the individuality that Be the Cowboy commands speaks to those tired of being just another square on Zoom. Especially considering the bold brightness of recent fashion trends, it makes sense that modern fashion is dusting off its cowboy boots and refining rugged individuality.
There’s something uniquely appealing about being the cowboy, especially in our current climate. Popular depictions of the classic historical figure invoke images of a white “all–American,” an outcast unafraid to go his own way in the unforgiving Western plains. But now, the cowboy can be a Japanese–American woman like Mitski, or a gay Black artist like Lil Nas X—it can even be you, with the purchase of some trendy cowboy paraphernalia.
Unfortunately, like all fashion trends, the cowboy aesthetic has become increasingly commonplace—meaning it’s almost out of style. But that doesn’t mean it’s too late to buy a sparkly pink cowboy hat or hop on the colorful cowboy boots wave, even if you might stick out. After all, isn’t that the way of the cowboy?