Draped evening gowns with full bustles of fabric, frills and ribbons; busts spilling out over the tight corsets of saloon girls; men in bowler hats brandishing revolvers and rifles. Tombstone in the 1880s must have been a beautiful sight.
Well, except for the mud and horse manure and gnarly ruffians tumbling into town from the mines or the trail, seeking drink and other diversions, not caring much for fashion.
But take a stroll in town today and you’re still offered small glimpses of the sartorial past, especially during festivals like Helldorado. I’m sorry to see, though, that Tombstone, once known as the place to truly live out a Western fantasy, has been losing its dress-up audience as the generation that kept the tradition alive moves. It is the few faithful fashionistas remaining in the town and nearby areas who maintain the local practice of dressing up in period fashion — with some surprising help from Europeans obsessed with the Old West.
Interestingly, Europeans, especially Germans, derive much of their fascination from the late 19th century novels of German writer Karl May, who wrote stories of an Apache tribe chief named Winnetou and his German blood brother. The books have sold millions and have accounted for about two dozen movies over the decades.
“That’s what they say the draw is; they read about it,” said Michelle DeSplinter, employee at the Apache Spirit Ranch, located down a dirt road at the end of Allen Street. “They have stories, they have movies, they have all of that about the West and this area. But they’ve never been here. So they come over because this is where their childhood stories come from.”
DeSplinter regularly encounters Europeans at the ranch, which is under German ownership. She said they have a number of themed groups who visit from all over Europe. The ranch was the western stop for an Elvis-themed tour group, a group of Europeans who rented Harley Davidsons to tour the West, and even a group of about 30 professional line dancers from Germany who held a 3-day clinic. Though many of the guests forego period garb, DeSplinter said that some Europeans come back time and time again, bringing their vests, hats and boots with them. Then there are other guests who go into town to purchase an outfit to take home, or rent for a special night out on the town.
Lynda Knox and her husband Dusty were Britons with such a love of the Old West that after a trip to Tombstone about ten years ago, they decided to move here. The couple are former owners of a bar and restaurant called the Western Frontier, in their hometown of Southport, England, and are members of a group of about 180 people in England called the Phoenix Rebels. The group had regular weekend Western nights Saturday at their bar, dressed in Western outfits. And yep, they held gunfight reenactments.
When Dusty and Lynda decided to visit America, they flew into Phoenix because of the name of their group. Oops. They couldn’t find much Old West in Phoenix.
“We had an RV and on our third day we found Tombstone,” Lynda Knox said. “I just said, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s the real thing.'”
Two months later, the Knoxs moved to Tombstone and purchased the Tombstone Bordello B&B, a historical establishment once owned by the famous Tombstone prostitute and Doc Holliday’s main lady, Big Nose Kate. But the past 10 years in Tombstone, Lynda says she has noticed a difference in the period clothing around town.
“We always dressed up at home but here, when we first came the first few years you’d walk on the boardwalk at Helldorado and go, ‘Oh wow, oh look at that!’ but now, I don’t know, maybe it’s because my outfits have gotten better I don’t seem to do that anymore.”
When Lynda Knox first arrived in Arizona she knew how to sew but had never made her own outfits. Today, she makes them all on her own, currently having about 10 dresses in her possession. Those that she doesn’t wear anymore she gives to thrift shops.
Lynda said about donating her dresses, “When I go to one of the bigger events I can go, ‘That’s mine, that’s mine and that’s mine.'”
When I wandered around town on a recent quiet Wednesday afternoon, there were hardly any people in costume who weren’t gunfight reenactors. But at big Nose Kate’s, I did encounter Cherri and Rick Bryan of Sierra Vista, and Nadine and Michael Seymour of Houston, Texas, resplendent in full period outfits.
“We don’t come to Tombstone without dressing up,” said Cherri Bryan.
Cherri and Nadine worked together at Spur Western Wear on Allen Street for a year before Nadine went to work at Big Nose Kate’s. Both Nadine and Cherri sew their own costumes and even their own hats.
And it’s not just the women who enjoy the tradition. “This isn’t a costume for me, it’s an outfit,” Rick Bryan said. “It’s in the heart.”