Home » Autry Looks at ‘Dress Codes’ – History and Impact

Autry Looks at ‘Dress Codes’ – History and Impact



Clothes say a lot about the wearer. They convey self-expression, gender identity, spending budget, societal norms, and the desire to belong or go against the grain in protest. The history and impact of clothes are the focus of an exhibition, “Dress Codes,” at the Autry Museum of the American West, in Los Angeles, until January 8, 2023.

Dress codes are the written and mostly unwritten rules that shape cultural identity. The Autry museum’s “Dress Codes” exhibit looks at how some Western clothing styles emerged and morphed through trends as functional work garb, trendy statements, or must-haves for all. The galleries convey “the stories of garments from a variety of cultural origins and trajectories to look at how we express ourselves through how we dress,” according to Autry President and CEO Stephen Aron.

What stories do clothes tell? The Autry “Dress Codes” exhibit looks at the history, social evolution, and impact of articles of attire associated with life on the Pacific coast. The Autry organized the museum galleries based on six symbols of Western style:

  • Blue jeans as the iconic expression of Americana attire,Autry
  • Plaid Western or flannel shirts,
  • Fringed leather garments which are still part of Native American ceremonial garb too.,
  • The aloha or Hawaiian shirt,
  • The China Poblana or Mexican peasant dress, and
  • The functional and fashionable cowboy boot.

Some of the six “Dress Codes” areas at the Autry are explored more fully than others. The Autry showcase features over 150 objects. These include apparel from the museum’s clothing and textile collection along with art, photos, and more. Additionally, there are donations displayed at the Autry that show the items’ connections to trends and traditions of that type of garment.

Levis Legacy

The Autry’s look at wardrobes begins with a section examining blue jeans (or denim). While globally ubiquitous today, jeans are articles of clothing that evoke images of the West and American attire more than any other garment. Today, a pair of blue jeans may cost $250 or $25. They might be stylishly torn or legitimately torn from wear.

A romanticized history of denim is romanticized with images of Levi’s 501s and Ralph Lauren. However, denim has been in use since the 17th century. As noted in the didactics posted at the Autry, the history is not always a positive one. The slave trade was tied to the indigo dye and cotton required for denim.  Denim, known as a strong fabric for work clothes, was used in apparel for slaves. After the Civil War, denim production involved child labor. Now, denim is frequently mentioned for creating environmental issues.

As a wardrobe staple, the reasons for owning jeans evolved. They were from adorning miners and cowboys to fashion rebels and designer chic. Through the years, people also wore them as symbols for sexual freedom and women’s rights. The exhibit notes that Levi Strauss & Co. began mass-producing jeans in the 1870s for miners, farmers, and cowboys. Films introduced the look to the rest of the country. Then, newer brands like Lee and Wrangler debuted to closely tie the look with cowboys.

Women drove a faAutryhion revolution by wearing jeans borrowed from male family members. Levis acknowledged the fact by introducing Lady Levis in 1934. During World War II, women wore them in factories to do “men’s work.” Lesbians also embraced them as a way to recognize others who shared their identity. Laws were established in some areas prohibiting people from wearing clothing not belonging to his or her sex, including women wearing fly-front jeans and trousers. Eventually, jeans and denim fashion went couture. As shown at the Autry, they remain a symbol today of generational, class, and other cultural divides.

Hawaiian Shirt Ways and Days

The Aloha attire section at the Autry examines the route of clothing from the Hawaiian Islands that went beyond local garb and kitschy souvenirs to a global casual look. The Hawaiian or Aloha shirt is a fusion created in the early 20th century. It combined surplus kimono fabrics with the boxy Filipino shirts worn by plantation workers. The initial shirts were custom-made and pricy. Then, they became an emblem of Hawaiian diversity as island tailors created a signature garment for locals and tourists that were manufactured en mass starting in the 1930s. American soldiers stationed there in WWII and tourists since then bought them as souvenirs.

Casual Friday started in Hawaii as Aloha Friday. Eventually, the movie “Office Space” and other entertainment promoted Fridays as Hawaiian shirt day. Now, Hawaiian-style shirts with island and other patterns.


‘Dress Codes’ Says A Lot, But Not Enough

The clothes each person chooses to wear on a given day convey a need to either fit in or stand out. Dress codes, official or assumed, reflect personality, authority, and purchasing power. 

The museum exhibit gets one thinking about dressing to impress or express, whether suits in the workplace or casual Fridays, athleisure or serious workout wear. The Autry “Dress Codes” exhibit does not get the same level of detail to some sections, such as cowboy boots, but looks into the history and encourages visitors to recognize the impact attire has on their lives.


Written by Dyanne Weiss


Autry exhibition visit

The Autry: The Autry Presents Dress Codes

The Culture Trip: A Brief History Of American Western Wear


Photos by Dyanne Weiss – Aloha shirts, jeans from 1890 and a denim jacket from 1901, Gene Autry’s cowboy boots from the Mid-20th Century, and China Poblana Mexican hand-painted skirts from 1940s-1950s at Autry museum.


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