Back in 2005, I was working out of a cubicle in Nebraska with an “office casual” dress code. The need for nice-ish clothes that were also affordable left me scouring thrift stores. It was on one of these missions that I saw my first pearl snap shirt. It fit and came cheap — which were pretty much my two style criteria at the time. I snatched it off the rack. I wore my snap shirt to the office the next day and co-workers thought I was mocking the dress code. Still, HR didn’t come calling and the response to the shirt was positive. I soon I found myself buying more of them. Eventually, I grew to love the cowboy shirt’s look and fit. Plus it was great to never lose buttons.
The following year, I packed everything I owned (including a small collection of pearl snap shirts) into a car and moved to Austin, TX. There, my cowboy duds were much more commonplace. In my new home, the thrift stores had a whole section set aside specifically for pearl snap shirts. What was once viewed as a piece of outsider clothing — reserved for cattle ranchers and country musicians — were clearly a sought-after garment in Texas, meshing with a variety styles.
Like jeans, pearl snap shirts were work clothes that rose to prominence because of function more than form. Men laboring on ranches found them easy to remove should they get caught up in a saddle or tangled in a barbed-wire fence. They were common among rodeo workers in the 1930s, and saw their first crossover appeal in the ’50s and ’60s, when cowboys dominated the pop culture landscape.
Though the garish outfits worn by singing cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers have never fully returned, simpler pearl snap shirts have kept the tradition alive on the big screen. Movies like Hud, Brokeback Mountain, No Country For Old Men, and most recently Hell Or High Water presented them as a style worn by characters who stood pat as their worlds changed around them. In many ways, that captures the identity of the pearl snap shirt — a stubborn relic from a more rugged time that has been paved over by the comforts of modern day life. But like a lot of those characters, the cowboy shirt isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s seen a resurgence.
“I’d say in the last probably solid 10 years it’s become much more mainstream,” explains Jennifer Johnson, owner of Ruby Begonia’s, a boutique thrift store in downtown Lincoln, NE.
Johnson attributes the pearl snap’s rise in popularity to the mostly limited options when it comes to men’s dress shirts, t-shirts, and polos. For those looking for some variety in their wardrobe, the pearl snap shirt is an interesting cowboy-conjuring option. It’s a garment that can fit a wide range of styles, too. While a pearl snap shirt is technically defined as any collared shirt that has metal snaps (often with burnished pearl inlays) in lieu of buttons, they often have a much more Western cut around the yoke, and embellished accents, such as piping or embroidery.
“How you wear this shirt depends on the individual,” explains Craig Berlin, owner of an Uptown Cheapskate franchise in Austin, TX. “Younger guys are kind of mixing some of what you would traditionally consider to be more hipster fashion. They will blend that with a pearl snap shirt from a vintage shop.”
Berlin, a native of Fort Worth, described his personal style growing up as a more preppy look, which included starched Wrangler jeans, boots, and polo shirts. But he’s watched how the pearl snap style has grown beyond the cowboy crowd.
“When you go out you see guys in bands playing in them,” he says. “Or guys who are in the film industry, guys who are kind of straddling that fence of artist.”
While the pearl snap has become a kind of uniform for creatives of every ilk, its vintage nature ensures that it never feels generic. Back when I was touring the nation with a country band, we spent down time perusing local thrift stores. This meant the chance to find a pearl snap shirt that you wouldn’t be able to find back home. These shirts were more than just part of the uniform, they were a way to express individuality.
Also, they fit well — tight in the torso, built for lean cattle men.
“Men’s shirts were just so square and boxy for so long,” said Johnson. “Unless you’re going to wear a white collar tailored dress shirt, the western shirt really has that fit for guys. If men wanted to wear tighter fitting suit jackets or get in the skinny jeans, all of that has become more of a closer-to-the-body look. I think the western shirts are a part of that.”