How Country Music Style Went From the Ranch to the Runway

Thomas Rhett
Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Thomas Rhett arrives at the 52nd annual CMA Awards at Bridgestone Arena on Nov. 14, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. 

From the beginning, the country music uniform has telegraphed the genre’s evolution. Gene Autry’s 1930s cowboy get-up spoke to country’s down-to-earth roots. Dandier silhouettes worn by Hank Williams in the ’50s developed in tandem with The Nashville Sound, followed by the glitzed-out ’60s and ’70s outfits that channeled Dolly Parton camp. Garth Brooks’ Wranglers-and-Ropers approach signified a return to down-home traditionalism in the ’90s. So with country-pop crossovers becoming a defining trend of 2018, what has become of Music City’s newest cowboys?   

They’ve gone mainstream.

The red carpet at the Country Music Association Awards in November echoed the adventurous textures and contemporary shapes that have flooded broader industry awards shows. Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard was decked out in Versace with punk-leaning chain metal details. Ryan Hurd rocked gold Dolce & Gabbana, accessorized with a barely visible Ofira Schwartz necklace. Walker Hayes was in prep-veering plaid, and Thomas Rhett in Dsquared.

With a few exceptions, like old-school country stalwarts Brooks and Jason Aldean, gone were the accoutrements that have put the country in country. Western dashes mostly appeared in cowboy boots peeking out of tuxedo-pant hemlines (YSL’s ready-to-wear interpretation has become a favorite).

“Artists are feeling less like they have to do the full-blown country thing,” says stylist Molly Free, who referenced Heath Ledger’s Joker when cultivating an album-cover look for client Ruston Kelly in September.

“The beauty of country music is this kind of ‘come as you are’ [attitude],” says Joseph Cassell, who styles Hurd, Maren Morris and Taylor Swift. “But people in mainstream pop music have been taking risks, and I like that we’re getting to see that in country men now.”

Pioneering celebrity stylist David Thomas flew to Nashville for the first time in his 30-year career to work with breakout artist Kane Brown. “[The country music world] has never been an area where I’ve been in demand or particularly interested in,” says Thomas, who also styles John Legend and Lionel Richie. “But you can see there has been a shift.” The mixtape aesthetic he and Brown developed spans double-breasted tuxedos and bomber jackets designed “to not pigeonhole him.”

Which is, in other words, building off the same thing that Cassell and Swift, country-pop pioneer Glen Campbell and a dapper pre-outlaw Willie Nelson were able to masterfully understand: Crossover music is best accessorized with crossover fashion. Expect a whole lot more of it on the Grammys red carpet.

2019 Grammy Awards

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 22 issue of Billboard.