Roots of the Cowboys t-shirt
The late Malcolm McLaren said he could never remember the origins of one of the most potent designs to emanate from 430 King’s Road in its six-decade history as a fashion emporium: the Cowboys t-shirt.
This depicts two behatted cowpokes in profile, naked from the waist down except for their boots, genitalia almost touching, one fixing the other’s neckerchief and engaging in the following exchange:
Bill: “ello Joe been anywhere lately”
Joe: “Nah its all played aht Bill Gettin too straight”
From the first appearance in SEX – when it sparked a prosecution for obscene exhibition in August 1975 – the shirt has achieved punk ubiquity via Vivienne Westwood’s £90 extrapolations and the market in £9 repro knock-offs.
Now I believe I have uncovered at least some of the roots of this striking act of collage, buried deep in fetish literature, radical philosophy and Swinging London imagery.
A year or so before his death, McLaren told me: “I can never remember where this image came from. I didn’t draw it, but added the word ‘dance’ in the background and the little caption which talked about the frustration and boredom I felt at the time.”
Some have posited that the cowboys came from a Tom Of Finland illustration, yet they are not the artist’s style, as McLaren confirmed: “No they weren’t his. I didn’t even know of the existence of Tom Of Finland at that time. I don’t think anybody really did unless you were deeply in gay culture.”
On the publication of Dressing For Pleasure, Johnny Trunk’s tribute to the fetish-wear and published material produced by John Sutcliffe in the 70s, I was struck by the similarity in the stance of a couple in a tableau which appeared in issue 6 of Sutcliffe’s magazine AtomAge (issued summer 1974).
The line of the male’s left flank, the bend in his knee, the curve in his posture and the splayed legs and straight back of the female resemble those of McLaren’s cowboys.
Of course, by the time of the t-shirt’s emergence, McLaren was well acquainted with Sutcliffe and his activities. Copies of the AtomAge magazine were scattered around SEX, and the store sold AtomAge clothes; Chrissie Hynde wore a black + red rubber number during the infamous Forum shoot.
It wouldn’t have taken much for the former art student McLaren to collage a fresh image by horizontally flipping the Atomage 6 female, tracing around the outlines of the couple and embellishing them with Wild West paraphernalia (and male genitalia).
The cowboys’ heads look to have been added from other sources; “Bill”‘s (on the left) appears to be too small for his body, while the that of “Joe” was, I believe, taken from a 1968 portrait of actor Michael J. Pollard reading a copy of underground mag IT outside the London boutique Granny Takes A Trip.
Pollard’s head appears to have been screened and tilted, while his snub-nosed profile and hairline look to have been elaborated to provide Joe’s cartoonish features.
The angle of Pollard’s right arm, hooked to the side with hand clutching sunglasses, is mirrored by Bill’s hand grasping his gun belt.
Did McLaren craftily take a scalpel to this photograph from the heyday of Granny’s – which was despised by the SEX set – and incorporate elements in the screen-print to further load the image?
There is, however, a more clear-cut connection between McLaren’s “little caption” on the Cowboys shirt and a panel in Le Retour de la Colonne Durutti , a four-page Situationist “comic” circulated by André Bertrand at Strasbourg University in October 1966 *.
In this Bertrand imposed speech bubbles (using dialogue from a novel by the Situationist International’s Michelle Bernstein) on a photograph of two cowboys on horseback:
Cowboy A: “What’s your scene, man?”
Cowboy B: “Realisation”
Cowboy A: “Yeah? I guess that means pretty hard work with big books and piles of paper on a big table.”
Cowboy B: “Nope. I drift. Mostly I just drift.”
Using détournement (the juxtaposition of pre-existing elements), Bertrand highlighted the SI themes the dérive (the drift, where individuals allow themselves to wander urban landscapes and are either repelled or enchanted by what they find) and realisation (SI’s chief theorist Guy Debord believed art should be “realised” so that creative acts become part of daily life).