Cool Things - Western Jacket
Two famed western stars are associated with this stylish jacket.
Silent film star Tom Mix gave this jacket to Reb Russell, a Kansan he met at Universal Pictures in the 1930s when sound films were all the rage.
Born Lafayette Russell in Coffeyville, Kansas, in 1905, "Reb" got his nickname while playing football at the University of Nebraska and Northwestern University. Russell excelled at the sport, gaining All American status in 1930 and playing briefly with the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles. But he chose instead to pursue a movie career after he got a bit part in Universal Pictures' The All-American (1932). It was during this time that the budding actor became acquainted with Tom Mix, also filming on the Universal lot. Mix was probably the greatest western star in silent films. He took Russell under his wing and they made the rounds at Hollywood parties, meeting producers and directors. Through his friend's influence, Russell gained a contract. He appeared in a number of low-budget independent westerns, including The Man from Hell (1934), Fighting Through (1934), Outlaw Rule (1935), and Lightning Triggers (1935).
Russell was an excellent rider and performed many stunts himself, but his acting skills and Midwestern drawl were deemed unsuitable and the contract was not renewed. Mix's movie career also was in the doldrums in the mid-thirties. He had recently toured with a circus and convinced his friend to do the same. Russell developed an act with his horse, Rebel, and they did trick riding and roping for two different circuses.
Mix gave Russell this jacket sometime during the 1930s. Mix had commanded a high salary during his heyday in the twenties, and lived an expensive lifestyle. Although his taste in fancy dress differed greatly from a working cowboy's, it was quickly adopted by other western stars. Bright colors and decorative details may have been ill-suited to the life of a real cowboy, but they were perfect for attracting the attention of an audience.
The jacket was produced by Hispanic weavers in Chimayo, a New Mexican village north of Santa Fe. Weaving traditions in northern New Mexico date back hundreds of years, and Chimayo is probably the best known weaving center in the region. Chimayo weavers incorporated both Navajo and Hispanic motifs into their goods. Native American weavings were especially popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and marketing by curio dealers and the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad blurred the distinction between Indian and Hispanic weavers. Even the reputable Fred Harvey Company confused buyers by advertising "Chimayo Indian" weavings for sale.
The trade in Southwestern goods was so lucrative that weavers developed new products to meet market demands. Tourists preferred items that were smaller and easier to pack than the traditional blankets and serapes, so Chimayo weavers produced pillow tops, purses, and clothing especially for travelers. The first "Chimayo jacket" appeared in 1930, shortly before Mix and Russell struck up their friendship. It is not known how Mix acquired the jacket pictured here, but it could have been purchased from almost any Southwestern dealer, curio shop, or Harvey House.
Tragically, the pair's friendship ended with Mix's premature death in an automobile accident in 1940. Russell left show business a few years later to take up ranching in the Midwest. He married and had two children. In 1964 he ran for Congress and nearly defeated the incumbent. Russell moved back to his hometown of Coffeyville, Kansas, in the early 1970s, and passed away there in 1978. His wife and son donated the jacket and other personal belongings to the Kansas Museum of History in the 1980s.
Entry: Cool Things - Western Jacket
Author: Rebecca Martin
Date Created: January 2005
Date Modified: August 2010
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.