Care and Feeding of Your Show Wardrobe
Care and Feeding of Your Show Wardrobe
Now that we’ve looked at all the individual components of a winning western show wardrobe, from hat to boots, it’s time to think about the care those fine clothes require to stay lookin’ good for years to come. A little planning will go a long way towards keeping your chaps, boots, hats, and clothing in ‘show shape’ and will also protect the investment you’ve made in these items.
Let’s tackle the care and feeding of your western wardrobe from head to toe. First, then, is your western hat. Fine hats are a badge of the true horseman- cheap ones just don’t hold their shape or stay good looking—but spending several hundred dollars for a topper can be intimidating. Relax, though, knowing that your hat’s brim can be changed to keep up with fashion, and, with diligent care, should last for at least five years.
The biggest danger to hats is dirt—kind of a problem when you only wear the thing out in a dusty arena! Dirt invades the fibers of felt hats, not only soiling the finish but also weakening the structure of the hat itself. Invest in a good soft-bristle hat brush (available from professional hatters) and use it before and after each wearing. Choose white bristles for light hats and black for dark- and don’t mix them, as most felt hats have colored powders applied to smooth the finish which can be transferred by the brushes.
A baby’s soft hairbrush, or natural bristle horse face brush—new of course! - can also clean your hat, but the long handle on a real hat brush makes the job easier. You can also use air from a compressor to gently lift dirt from your felt hat. Spots on felt hats can sometimes be removed or minimized by using fine sandpaper or an emery board to gently abrade away the stained top layer of felt. Commercial hat cleaning products rarely help a damaged hat: diligent dusting is the best way to keep your chapeau in tip-top shape.
For straw hats, a soft brush whisks away dirt, and small stains can be removed with a dab of liquid soap on a soft cloth—but you’ll never scrub away the natural yellowing that all straws experience over time. Consider one of the new sweat liners available for additional comfort and to prevent ring-around-your-forehead stains on straws and pale felt hats, and use tissue paper, paper towels—even a cigarette or two—between sweat band and forehead if your hat’s a little too big.
Handle your hat properly. Never touch the brim, but place your fingers on the decorative band to set the hat on your head and settle it into place. To remove, use your clean thumb to push up at the sweatband in the center of your forehead to pop the hat loose, then again, handle it from the band. Your hat should live on your head or in its box or carrier, but if you must set your hat down, don’t place it on the brim. Put it on a clean surface upside down, on the top crease of the crown. And never set your hat on a bed—that’s bad cowboy luck!
Invest in a strong hat carrier, or use shipping tape to reinforce your hat’s original cardboard box. Don’t wrap a plastic bag tightly around the hat, as heat and moisture can escape from the sweatband and mildew or warp the hat. Remember that heat is your hat’s enemy, so never store it in a horse trailer, car, or other area that may heat up—your hat will heat warp and may be impossible to fix. For overall hat care, find a good hatter and follow their advice on cleaning and care, and don’t forget that moths love to chew holes in tasty felt hats. Use mothballs if you store your felt hat for more than a month.
Caring for show clothing—shirts, vests, blouses, jackets, blazers, and pants- is usually a matter of using common sense and reading the manufacturer’s care instructions. By the way, it’s a United States law that fiber content and cleaning instructions must be attached to all garments sold in the US. Keep in mind that starch will help natural fibers, especially cotton, to repel dirt and will also keep fabrics from billowing as you ride, but starch only sticks to natural fibers- you can’t starch polyester with any success.
Find and use a good dry cleaner, and don’t leave show clothes dirty in your trailer show after show. Dirt abrades woven fibers and will definitely shorten the life of your clothing. If in doubt about cleaning, try the sniff test, and consider using dress shields in your clothes if you perspire heavily: you’ll feel more confident and your clothes will last longer. Gentle hand-washing or spot cleaning with liquid detergent can save on cleaning bills, but again, always follow the manufacturer’s instructions or ask your dry cleaner for advice for on-the-road touch ups. Invest in a good garment bag and use it to protect your show clothes between wearings.
Many of today’s popular women’s show clothing styles feature elaborate trims including rhinestones and leather. Buyer beware: some of these clothes cannot be safely cleaned, even by hand washing. Quality leather cleaners are few and far between, so be certain yours is reputable. Before you spend a bundle, make sure you understand the care requirements of your fabulous new outfit. Wearing clothing that can’t be cleaned around horses is foolhardy, unless you can afford disposable show apparel!
Protect your show clothing by wearing a smock or lab coat over those beautiful-but-vulnerable pale outfits until you step into the ring, and always have a clean towel handy to dab at accidents. Try to finish all your grooming before you don your show togs, and remember that having a second outfit is good insurance just in case your horse blows his nose all over your terrific new cream-colored blouse. Keep a sewing kit in your trailer or tack box, and an assortment of safety pins too.
Chaps, like hats, do well if they are simply kept dust-free. Again, a soft bristle brush is great to flick off a day’s worth of arena dust, and the gentle dusting attachment on a vacuum also works wel—just be careful not to suck up your fringe! Always brush with the nap of the leather or Ultrasuede to avoid imbedding dirt instead of removing it.
Store your chaps folded from thigh to instep, then in half across the knee, on a thick, strong hanger. Chap and garment bags work great, as do retired pillowcases with a few stitches removed from the end seam. Store leather chaps inside out to minimize fading, and Ultrasuede right side out to keep wrinkles in the laminated top belts from becoming permanent. Remove silver conchos and buckles before cleaning, if possible, to keep tarnish from spreading onto the chaps.
Exposed to intense sunlight, all fibers will fade. Dark clothing, chaps—even horses!—will experience sun fading over a period of time. This is rarely noticeable in clothing, but chaps, especially between the knee and upper thigh, tend to show fading after a season or two. Suede leather chaps can safely be machine-washed from time to time, and putting some appropriately-colored liquid dye in the wash water can help restore faded areas. Again, care for your chaps as recommended by the maker. Genuine Ultrasuede is more colorfast than leather, and machine washes beautifully.
Don’t worry about cleaning your chaps until they are obviously soiled on the outside of the legs—some saddle oil will always transfer where the chaps contact the saddle, and dark leather chaps are likely to transfer their color back onto the saddle as well, but these areas will not show as you ride. Chaps with tooled leather tops cannot be cleaned well, even by leather care experts, so take extra care to remove arena dirt each time you put them away.
Western boots require minimal care. Depending on the type of leather they are made from, a good polishing with cream polish and lots of elbow grease is probably all they’ll require to stay lookin’ good. In a hurry? Don’t bother to polish the tops of your boots: they’ll be completely covered by your pants and chaps, and simply don’t need the attention. You’ll greatly increase the life of your boots if you store them on shoetrees, and use a pair of inexpensive Christmas stockings as jaunty protective boot bags.
Keep your saddle blankets looking new by using quality liner pads, and vacuuming dander and horsehair away from the areas that overlap the liner and contact the horse. Wear leathers keep latigo stains away from light colored blankets, and a ventilated blanket bag for storage and transport is well worth the cost for managing quality blankets. Always try to let blankets dry in a natural shape, and don’t forget the moth balls if you store wool blankets for an extended period.
Care of your show accessories is minimal. Purchase a clear plastic shoebox or organizer to corral your gloves, hair accessories, jewelry, and other small items. To clean your silver, first be sure it really is silver! Sterling tarnishes to a grayish tone, and non-silver alloys become dull over time and cannot be polished with silver polish. Whether you use liquid, paste, or aerosol silver polish for your genuine silver, try to keep the polish off of everything but the silver. Use clean soft cloths or try the saddler’s secret—chunks of foam rubber—to remove tarnish and highlight traditional engraving. Don’t forget to clean the back of belt buckles and conchos to keep tarnish off underlying clothing. Storing clean silver in zip lock bags with the air removed and a tarnish-preventative strip enclosed (available from jewelers) will reduce future tarnishing.
Take time to establish a pre- and post-show routine to inspect, repair, and clean your show wardrobe, and you’ll know you’re ready to show and look your best next time around. You’ll also extend the life of your fine clothing and accessories and help maintain their resale value for when the time comes to upgrade or re-style your wardrobe. As always, invest in the best within your budget, and take care of your fine things for a winning look.