We associate it with Wayne because he liked it and wore it often in his movies. Remember the first time we see him as the Ringo Kid in the classic movie Stagecoach? He's hitching a ride in the desert because his horse has gone lame and when we see him he twirls his shotgun, smiles, and walks right into our hearts. If you looked away from his face for a moment, you might have noticed he was wearing what became his trademark shirt.
John Wayne as the Ringo Kid in the movie Stagecoach.
It is so different from the shirts we wear today, that I wondered about its origins. It turns out that the shirt was worn by men in cowboy movies because cowboys really did wear it in western life. But its origins actually go back to the middle of the 19th century and to firefighters on both sides of the Atlantic.
It is important to understand that until the 19th century, all clothing was made by hand. Then, in 1856, Isaac Singer began mass producing the Singer Sewing Machine and it became possible to produce all kinds of clothing, including men's shirts, in factories. The factory-made shirt came along just in time for its use in the uniforms of the Civil War.
The placket front, double-row-of-buttons shirt had been worn first by firemen. They needed a uniform that looked good, but they also needed one they could work in, a shirt that held together during the strenuous work of driving big teams of horses and when fighting fires. Currier and Ives showed New York firefighters in the shirt--in red flannel--in their 1858 series on the American fireman.
Currier and Ives print, one of a series on the life of the American fireman.
British firefighters in the 19th century also wore the placket front shirt (or blouse as it is called in uniform parlance--and that word can also mean jacket) for their duties.
An 1890 photo of firemen in London.
During the U.S. Civil War, both sides suddenly had a need for millions of mass produced uniforms. Units on both sides wore the placket front shirt. As in the case of firemen, soldiers needed uniforms that looked good to the folks back home and kept morale high in the ranks. The placket front shirt with its double row of buttons looked very spiffy indeed. But it was also very practical for a soldier. It allowed a man to put his tobacco pouch, his girlfriend's picture, a letter from home, or his lunch right inside the front of his shirt, giving him easy access to these items while leaving his hands free for his knapsack and his weapon. The placket with its double row of buttons gave the shirt more strength and the ability to take more "pull" (for climbing, raising one's arms for shooting, and for holding the reins of horses) without tearing or popping a button. What the men of the Civil War called a fireman's shirt was great-looking and practical.
When the war was over, the boys took those shirts home, and their return home coincided with the biggest westward movement in our history. So, a lot of those shirts went West, and since they were made of fine gabardine wool (the Union made everything out of wool, even the soldiers' underwear, hence the name "Union suit") they lasted forever. The men of the West had little need for formal wear, so the shirt was worn more out West than it was in the East and the fireman's shirt gradually became the mark of a cowboy. Once again, the shirt looked good, wore well, was comfortable and had room for the chaw and Ma's letters.
Some units in the U.S. Cavalry also wore the shirt in the decades after the Civil War. George Armstrong Custer wore one into battle the day he died, according to the National Park Service on its Web site about the Little Bighorn Battlefield:
"Custer, as he appeared at the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, was described by the last white people to see him alive ... He wore buckskin breeches and had his buckskin coat strapped to his saddle. His shirt was a version of a "fireman's shirt" made of lightweight wool and trimmed on the collar and cuffs with white tape."
General George Armstrong Custer poses with his catch on a successful buffalo hunt in the West. The fireman's shirt he's wearing appears to be buckskin. The photo is from the National Archives.
Half a century later, when John Wayne starred in his movies about the U.S. Cavalry, he too wore the fireman's shirt.
Wayne in his trademark shirt. Here it is a feature of his cavalry uniform.
Wayne probably saw the shirt first when he was working at Republic Studios doing Westerns in the 1930s. In those days, the wranglers and stuntmen were real cowboys and wore what was in the closet. The Civil War was only seventy years in the past, and their fathers and uncles had worn those shirts. Wayne spent almost a decade making programmers at Republic before he became a star and during that time he perfected his acting, his walk, the kind of kerchiefs he liked (you'll see the same kind in all of his pictures after 1939, often with blue and red in them) and, it appears, he also formed an opinion about the shirt he liked best. He wore the fireman's shirt a lot. It looked good on a man with a broad chest and it certainly looked good on Wayne.
And thus it was transformed from a fireman's shirt into a John Wayne shirt. Anonymous firemen may have worn it first: but John Wayne wore it best.