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Growing up in GWG's

by Ian McDonald

Like Wayne Gretzky and countless thousands of Canadian boys in the 50s and 60s, I grew up wearing GWG jeans. Although my experience is mirrored by many of my contemporaries, here are a few thoughts of my own.

I vividly remember the first GWG's I owned: a pair of Cowboy Kings purchased in Edmonton in the summer of 1949 when I was five years old. They were bought at the Chapman Brothers store on Whyte Avenue, which remained a large dealer of GWG garments right through the time I was in university, although I'm sure that the Army and Navy store handled a much bigger volume at its two locations.

What I remember most about Chapman Brothers was not the enormous stock of work clothing of every variety but a very distinctive smell in the store that I can now trace to the fabric sizing in the thousands of denim items on the premises. This was long before the practice of pre-washing denim garments. Even before 1949 it is quite likely that my brother and I were dressed in GWG play clothes, but I have no specific memories of this. That summer of my first GWG's we were headed for our summer cottage on Pigeon Lake I don't think I took off my brand new jeans for the entire duration of our stay except to sleep, even though they became intolerably hot as we rowed ourselves up and down the lake in an ancient boat.

Photo of men's pants Photo of men's pants Although my dad wore GWG Red Straps for chores around the house and garden, my mother initially frowned on the wearing of jeans to school. She relented only when she realized that virtually all of my friends and our neighbours' sons were wearing them. Jeans were, however, banned from our Sunday dinner table to the end.

Cowboy King jeans, shirts and jackets remained staples for school wear for years. I recall at one stage having jeans with riveted stitching in the shape of holsters, all the better for playing Cowboys and Indians! The front pockets of jeans were often made of the same plaid flannel as the shirts - no doubt an efficiency on the part of the manufacturer but an unintended plus at ensemble coordination on the part of the wearer! So attached did my younger brother become to his Cowboy Kings denim jacket that he actually gave it a name: Denny.

My most vivid memories of wearing GWG's stem from my high school years, which began in 1957. By that time there was a mania for wearing GWG's iconic brand, Red Straps. These were actually work jeans, not just casual wear. In spite of (or maybe because of) this, all through high school Red Straps were the jeans of choice. We wore them, loose fitting and tough, with the longest leg length possible—36 inches—so that we could turn up a big cuff at the bottom. Wearing Red Strap jeans with black motorcycle boots and possibly a leather jacket with a white silk scarf(!) and pomaded hair, a young stud had the look to kill for, although few of us dared take things that far.

But it was the striking red hammer loop on the side of the leg that turned a simple garment into a novel sport. Ripping the red strap from the pant leg of the wearer became not just a game but practically an obsession. Given the quality of GWG garments, tearing away the hammer loop was actually quite difficult and often two or more boys would gang up on one individual to do the deed. A boy who could accomplish this on his own had a claim to toughness, and so did the boy who managed not to lose his own strap.

Some kids acknowledged defeat before they even wore their jeans for the first time and cut off the strap before turning up at school. Others had their mothers sew the red strap tight against the pant leg; my locker mate secreted straight pins in his. So seriously was all this taken that it was rumoured that some boys even concealed an old fashioned razor blade in theirs.

The Red Strap fad had subsided by the time I hit university and, with the advent of easily acquired Levi's and Lees—for many years GWG had been the only game in town—a bit of colourful history came to an end. But I still like to wear GWG's and will pick up a pair of Red Straps, long since discontinued as a GWG line, wherever I can find them—a bit of off-beat Canadiana in which at least some of my contemporaries may be amused to share.