A cowboy without a good pair of Wrangler jeans is like George Strait without a hat: still the iconic figure we know and love, but not quite complete. Since 1947, Wrangler has been a Western wear staple. But the next time you slip on your perfectly worn in pair of denim duds, you should give thanks to Bernard “Rodeo Ben” Lichtenstein, the “Polish cowboy” who birthed the official cowboy uniform.
In the early 1940s, the Blue Bell clothing company was looking to appeal to a new market. So they called on Rodeo Ben, a tailor from Lodz, Poland who had earned the trust of rodeo cowboys. Ben already had a successful retail store, Rodeo Ben’s in Philadelphia, where he stayed busy slinging eye-catching Western attire to cowboys and country stars. The shop was known as “the East’s most Western store.”
Rodeo Ben’s camaraderie with the cowboys helped him design the perfect jean for the rodeo. In 1947, cowboys Jim Shoulders, Bill Linderman and Freckles Brown tested out the new 13MWZ jeans, now known as the “Cowboy Cut.” According to G. Daniel DeWeese, a Western wear historian and author of “Western Shirts: A Classic American Fashion,” Rodeo Ben’s long-rise fit allowed cowboys easier movement in the saddle. The back pockets also sat higher so cowboys wouldn’t sit on their wallets when riding and the belt loops were lengthened to allow for heavier belts and large trophy belt buckles.
The jeans were the newest craze in denim fashion on the rodeo circuit and beyond. The company once known as Blue Bell became forever known as Wrangler. For years, every tag inside each pair of Wranglers read, “designed by Rodeo Ben, custom cowboy tailor.”
Country Music ‘Jeanology’
In 1948, champion rodeo cowboy Jim Shoulders signed on to endorse the brand. Less than three decades later, Wrangler became the first and only western wear brand to be endorsed by the Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association. Since then, the brand has become synonymous with the west.
Those mega-80s “Here Comes Wrangler” television ads certainly didn’t hurt.
But it wasn’t just rodeo cowboys (or those that played them on TV) who were eager to don the denim. Willie Nelson appeared in a series of Wrangler ads in the mid-80s.
But the country star most associated with the brand is undoubtedly George Strait. In 1992, Wrangler supplied the clothes for the cast of the Strait-led movie “Pure Country.” King George is still the face of Wrangler and even lent his name to the “George Strait Cowboy Cut Collection,” a line of jeans and button-down western shirts.
Without Rodeo Ben and those famous stitched W’s, country music style might look a whole lot different.
Today, Rodeo Ben’s designs can be found in the Pro-Rodeo Hall of Fame, the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum and on cowboys and cowgirls everywhere.