GWG and the Rodeo
by Cathy Roy
By the mid-1940s, GWG had established a reputation for well-made, long-wearing work garments, but one sector of the western market remained elusive: cowboys preferred other brands. GWG began a campaign of advertising and sponsorship aimed at the cowboy market.
GWG and Cowboys
The Cowboy's Protective Association took over the management of rodeos in 1944 in order to improve working conditions and protect cowboys against unfair management by rodeo entrepreneurs. Without the financing of the entrepreneurs, commercial rodeo sponsors were required. During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, GWG played a major role in supporting Western Canadian rodeos. GWG supplied prizes for major events, distributed free rodeo program covers to organizing committees, and advertized their products with rodeo champions as models, in periodicals such as The Country Guide and the Toronto Star Weekly. They also gave free sample clothing to rodeo performers.
Claire Dewar Roberts was one of the Daring Dewar Sisters, who were trick riders. In 1950 GWG offered Claire and her sister three GWG outfits each, to be worn and talked about around the rodeo circuit. This occurred on an annual basis. Although Claire liked working with the GWG people, she said the clothes didn't fit well. GWG was in competition with Wranglers for the cowboys' business. And Wranglers, she said, "always fit so nice." Claire had to take in the GWG shirts to give them some shape, and the pants were too baggy in the seat. An image from the 1950 GWG Catalogue illustrates the baggy-cut denims, "specially styled for women." The side button closure replacing the centre front fly is the concession to a feminine look. The women's pants, loose fitting in the hips and thighs, have more in common with the men's Red Strap overall than the men's Cowboy King rider pants.
A closer look at some print ads and archival photos illustrates the problem with fit. A June 1946 ad in The Country Guide is an "Actual Scene Photographed at the 1945 Calgary Stampede, Champion Chuck Wagon Outfit." Five chuck wagon competitors stand or lounge around their rig. They do not present the elegant picture that Frank Duce and Carl Olson ("a pair of champions") do in the artist-illustrated ad from The Country Guide, June 1948. Though both Duce and Olson are depicted in the looser fitting 1940s shirts, they wear their low-rise pants tucked into their boots and give the camera/artist a sidelong glance as they take a smoking break at the Calgary Stampede. The advertising testimonial of Calgarian rodeo rider Earl Hill in the June1951 issue of The Country Guide stresses the "toughness and long wear" inherent in Cowboy Kings. The ad promotes the Calgary Stampede and is illustrated with images of real cowboys in the relaxed-fit shirts and jeans.
A photographic image dated June 1954, depicts working ranch hands in GWGs. The fit of the pants is sloppy and the legs are too long. Contrast this with the Cowboy Kings' Toronto Star Weekly ad depicting Gordon Earl, All Round Canadian Cowboy Champion at the 1953 Calgary Stampede. Earl leans against the corral fence, next to his prize saddle. Though not "skin tight", his pants fit well. They are not a low-rise cut but they conform to his athletic physique. The Cowboy Kings jacket accentuates his broad shoulders. The lower left corner of the full-page ad shows a couple dancing (swing your partner at the post-rodeo dance?) both clad in skin-tight Cowboy Kings. GWG is clearly altering the reality of their fit in order to sell their product.
In 1956, Bob Robinson won the Canadian Bronc Riding Champion Trophy Saddle. A photograph shows him sporting a well-fitting Cowboy Kings shirt and jeans, and carrying a jeans jacket. Robinson recalls that he was able to select the correct size of jeans for the photo shoot. He remembers that GWG jeans were higher in the rise than the cowboy-favoured Wranglers. Bob made a career in rodeo and in sales including working as a salesman for Levi's, Wranglers and GWG.
Get the Flash Player to see this video.
Bob Robinson describes the appeal of GWGs to cowboys (1:50)
Don Freeland worked in sales and marketing for GWG from 1955 until 1977. He was able to analyze the fit of the jeans by having a cutter take apart a pair of Wranglers, stitch by stitch, to compare the garment pieces to a pair of GWGs. The Wranglers had a slightly lower rise and the seat seam had a longer back curve. The pants had room to move, but they hugged the seat. GWG designers had never significantly modified the seat run of the pants since designing the early models of their work pants. Pants made when the plant began in 1911 had a nearly straight 45-degree angled centre back seam. The extra comfort and room that GWG provided with a higher rise and a straighter back seam was acceptable to consumers of farm clothing and other work wear. Cowboys and cowgirls, however, had a sense of pride in their appearance and preferred a more modern fit.
Western Canadian rodeo supported by GWG
GWG advertised to cowboys and fans of the rodeo. Rodeo programs reveal the sponsorship role GWG played through advertising. In smaller centres, such as Hanna, Alberta, GWG supplied the printed program cover complete with a GWG ad featuring 1966 All Round Canadian Champion Tom Bews and his wife Mrs. Rosemary Bews in Cowboy Kings. Printed program covers were supplied free to local rodeos who added their name to the front and the program of events inside the cover.
Saskatchewan Saddle Bronc Champion trophy saddle presented by GWG, 1967. Credit: WCH/RAM, H08.17.247.
GWG provided trophy saddles for rodeos throughout western Canada. Saddles awarded during the 1950s were supplied through Riley and McCormick; this one was made by Cloverbar Saddlery. The Saskatchewan Saddle Bronc Champion saddle was won by Jim Reinbold of Provost, Alberta, at the 1967 Saskatchewan Amateur Rodeo Cowboys' Association competition in Swift Current.
GWG sponsored prizes at large events such as the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede, July 8-13, 1957. They supplied special trophies for a Chuck Wagon Race and the Boys' Wild Steer Riding event. During the 1970s, they sponsored the Canadian Finals Rodeo for three years. A program from the 1975 Second Annual Canadian National Finals Rodeo at the new Edmonton Coliseum sports arena reveals that GWG offered the major prizes for the championship events and claimed to be "Makers of the official CNFR jean" in the back cover ad. By 1979, support for the Canadian Finals Rodeo had dwindled. GWG placed an ad inside the back cover featuring GWG-clad cowgirl and cowboy bums. Their prize donation appears to be limited to a $150 "Trophy Wrist Watch". A rival western wear firm, Three Bars, advertises that they are "sponsors of professional rodeo".
A child-sized belt buckle advertizes that the wearer is a "Bunkhouse Bunch Member". The club was sponsored by Woodward's (department store), GWG and the Canadian Finals Rodeo. The buckle was possibly a souvenir of a discount admission club for children. C.N. "Chunky" Woodward was a member of the Canadian National Finals Rodeo Commission during the 1970s. An archival image shows a Woodward's store window in 1953 which features GWG western wear "donated ... for all-round champion cowboy at the Edmonton rodeo".
GWG's Singing Cowboy
Stu Davis, Canada's Cowboy Troubadour, was at the beginning of his performing and song writing career when he became known as GWG's Singing Cowboy in the late 1940s. GWG sponsored a daily 15-minute program produced at CJCA Edmonton and aired in Regina, Calgary and Edmonton. The 1948 GWG Almanac features an image of Stu Davis and three pages of lyrics entitled "The songs Stu Davis sings". The GWG Iron Man Pants slogan is featured at the bottom of the page.
GWG made a concerted effort to associate its products with the attractive image of cowboys and cowgirls through generous advertising, merchandise and sponsorships that supported Western Canadian rodeo. The company provided timely assistance to the sport, but GWG styles did not achieve the standard of fit desired in fashionable western wear until it received competition from many other competitors in the marketplace.