In the late 1970s and early '80s, Texas emerged into national prominence in a way that it never had before. Suddenly, the Lone Star State was "cool," or at least cooler than it had ever been. A combination of cowboy culture and oil money played out in mythic fashion on television screens across the country when Dallas hit the airwaves in 1978, and Urban Cowboy further captured our regional zeitgeist when it brought the epic tale of Bud and Sissy and their Gilley's-based love story to movie audiences all over the world.
Suddenly, people all over the world cared about who shot J.R., and glitterati like Andy Warhol and Jerry Hall showed up for Urban Cowboy's premiere. Hall is originally from Gonzales, Texas, and had a tiny role in the film, but she'd escaped to a life of high society, modeling and relationships with rock stars years earlier. But Texas and Houston were in the national eye, and that Urban Cowboy image was suddenly hip.
In early '80s Houston, there might have been no better place for folks to shop for stylish clothes than Cutter Bill's Western World, a Galleria-area shop located where a strip club named Treasures is today. The Western wear store was one of two (the other was in Dallas, naturally) owned by a self-made millionaire named Rex Cauble. He had risen from being an oilfield roughneck in the 1930s to owning his own lucrative oil business a few years later. Cauble seems to have been the kind of Texan character of whom legends are made. He bought a world champion cutting horse named Cutter Bill, and enjoyed high-stakes poker, fitting pursuits for a wealthy Texas oilman. When he opened his Western wear stores in the 1970s, and named them after his famous horse, his timing couldn't have been better. The stores were a huge success, and were a perfect addition to Houston.
Recently, a close friend of mine showed me a collection of old Cutter Bill's catalogs and advertising layouts. His parents owned a local advertising agency that handled much of Cutter Bill's business, and my friend even briefly worked at the Galleria-area store as a teen. Browsing through the catalogs was a real step back to a previous era in Houston's history. Cowboy hats seemed to be taller then, and the clothes from those catalogs look pretty strange 35 years down the road.
"Just like Tonto!" reads one description for a $360 leather fringed shirt inspired by traditional Native American clothing. On the same page, a handcrafted "Indian Princess Dress" is available, complete with fringe, painted flowers, and natural glass and brass beads. The cost? $1,700 - in early '80s money, which would be about the equivalent of $5,242 today. It's doubtful that many mainstream stores would advertise Native American-styled clothing in such a fashion in 2016, with white models wearing it, and that name-dropping of "Tonto," but these catalogs come from a different age, and captured the era, warts and all.
This was high-end clothing marketed to people with more money than was probably typical of the original Gilley's patrons. It was aimed more at oil company execs than the average roughneck out in the fields. But for those well-heeled enough, the western skies were the limit. For $750, a guy in 1981 could have himself a 14 carat gold oil derrick ring with three diamonds spewing out of the top, and keep his pants latched up with a $300 western-style, oil-derrick-emblazoned belt buckle. Judging from the Cutter Bill catalog, "oil derrick" everything was a popular trend, with items ranging from jewelry to table lamps and poker chips available with the Texas oilfield icon on them.
Male and female models wearing elaborate "haute western" outfits are sprawled across luxury cars, seeming to suggest that in early '80s Texas, money, oil and Western wear were an almost holy trinity. Most of the clothing looks like it was made to be worn by a carousing oil exec at the upscale Galleria-area club Cowboy, rather than by a working-class guy about to ride the mechanical bull at Gilley's, but that was a big market at the time, and Cutter Bill seems to have been one of the main clothing businesses catering to it.
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For those men and women who had the money and desire to hit the town wearing a mink western-style coat ($8,000, or around $24,670 today), Cutter Bill Western World could hook them up, and provide a $2,500 ($7,709 today) Resistol "Golden Ermine Hat" to top the ensemble off. Customers could also snack on jalapeño peanuts or "Texas Crude," the black licorice-flavored jelly beans the company also sold.
Unfortunately for fans of Cutter Bill's, everything came to a grinding halt soon after these catalogs were released. Rex Cauble was indicted by a grand jury because the government believed that he was the financial backer behind what was reportedly the largest marijuana smuggling operation in Texas during the '70s. According to investigators, a small fleet of shrimp boats had been used to shuttle countless tons of the drug from Colombia to Port Arthur, Texas.
Many people who knew Cauble believe that he was innocent and had been duped by a ranch foreman of his named Charles "Muscles" Foster, who they thought was the real leader of the smuggling ring. Local media nicknamed the smugglers "The Cowboy Mafia," and regardless of his true involvement, Cauble took the fall. He was convicted in 1982 on violations of the RICO Act, among other crimes, and was sentenced to ten concurrent five-year sentences. Cauble was released in 1987, but lost his Cutter Bill Western World stores after the conviction. Adding insult to injury, the Houston store reportedly operated as a strip club using the Cutter Bill sign for a time after the Western wear store had closed. Cauble lived until 2003, leaving behind a colorful legacy befitting a modern Texas legend.
The colorful collision of big money and cowboy couture has never been as gloriously over the top as during those few heady years in the late '70s and early '80s, with a sobering oil bust just around the corner to kill off a lot of big-money jobs, but looking back at these Cutter Bill Western World catalogs is a fun reminder of a long gone slice of Houston's history.