The Spanish brought chaperajos to the Americas when colonists from that country began establishing huge rancheros in Mexico, Central America and the southwestern areas of the North American continent that eventually became California, New Mexico, and Arizona. Shortened to "chaps," and pronounced "shaps" (never "chaps"), the leather leggings fit over a rider's pants, protecting his legs from brush and helping him stay warm and dry when he was out looking for cattle in rough country.
According to co-authors Tom Lindmier and Steve Mount, in I See by Your Outfit: Historic Cowboy Gear of the Northern Plains, Texas drovers soon modified Spanish-style chaps to suit their own purposes. The first version was "shotgun chaps," straight leather leggings sewn to a belt, which began to appear in the 1870s. The cowboy pulled the chaps on over his pants without taking off his boots and spurs and buckled the belt at the back. At first chaps were purely functional protective wear, but soon they began to get fancier, sporting leather fringe, silver conchas and stamped or carved leather belts.
Batwings and Woolies
In the 1880s, two new innovations appeared. Batwing, or simply wing, chaps fit the body like shotgun chaps from the waist to the knees where they flared out into a wing shape. As time passed, the batwing gradually became more exaggerated.
Angora, or woolie, chaps were made from animal skin with the hair or wool left on. Initially makers used Angora goat skin to make these dramatic chaps, though they sometimes used bear skins. The wool or hair was warmer than bare leather, and the natural oils in the wool helped the chaps shed water, which made cowboys more comfortable in wet weather or in the mountains, where it rained frequently. Eventually, spotted cowhide also became a common skin used to make woolie chaps.
Available by Mail
In How the West Was Worn, James H. Nottage wrote that dry-goods retailers (some of which also were manufacturers) were soon selling chaps in their stores and through the mail. Founded just after the turn of the 20th century and still in business, Hamley's of Pendleton, Ore., sold all manner of cowboy gear, including chaps in multiple iterations.
As time passed, the leather belt that held the two legs of the chaps together became a canvas for the leather-worker's art. Stampings and carvings on the belt grew more elaborate. Lindmier and Mount wrote that around 1910, an unknown artist invented the "dip belt," which was curved in the front and thus more comfortable than earlier belts that had cut straight across the cowboy's waistline.
Enter the Rodeo Cowboy
With the advent of competitive rodeo, the design of chaps crossed the line from the purely functional to the wildly decorative. Fringe, which before had been something of an afterthought, became a key element because it exaggerated the motion of the bucking horse or bull and made the cowboy's ride look more dramatic. Batwing chaps, which at first had had only slightly wider profiles than shotgun chaps, suddenly morphed into huge appendages that were twice or more as wide as the cowboy wearing them.
On the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) and Professional Bull Riders (PBR) circuits, you can now see riders wearing chaps of lime-green, bright red and hot pink leather with flashy metallic fringe and silver belt buckles.
On the Range
Working cowboys continue to wear chaps on the range, though these versions would scarcely be recognizable to the drovers who first took cattle herds up the trail to the shipping yards in Kansas in the late 19th century. With their wider profiles, zippers up the sides of the legs and decorated belts, contemporary chaps marry technological improvements with the time-honored function they were first invented to serve.