“I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy …”
These words from Streets of Laredo are not as transparent as they may seem to be. Our modern interpretation of “outfit” refers basically to the clothes we wear, and can be stretched to include belt, shoes, hat, and (for a woman) handbag.
But would clothes distinguish a cowboy from a farmer? or a rancher? Remember that clothing was in limited supply in the Old West. Many cowboys wore Mr. Levi Strauss’ blue jeans, but striped pants and corduroys were also common and, after the Civil War, so were army twills. Shirts were made of muslin, cambric, flannel and corduroy — sometimes even gingham. And while high-heeled boots would have distinguished cattlemen from farmers, they wouldn’t always distinguish the rancher from his cowhands.
To a cowboy, his “outfit” included not only what he wore, but his saddle & saddlebags, bridle, rope, bedroll, rifle & guns, most of which were always with him. It could include even his horse. In short, it meant all of his personal possessions, and that’s the outfit we’re seeing reference to in the song.
But there’s another definition of outfit in the Old West, loosely meaning comrades-in-arms. Whether it was the cowhands of the Bar-X ranch, or the outlaws of the notorious Hash Knife gang, the “outfit” was defined as a cowboy’s friends and associates. For better or ill, a cowboy carried the reputation not only of himself, but of his outfit as well.