Why did the great artist Charlie Russell wear a red sash?
Cowboy artist Charlie Russell never wore a belt, but he folded his sash like one. He began wearing a red sash when he arrived in Montana in 1880 after seeing old-timers wearing them in Helena. These sashes were known as a metis (French for “half breed”) because mixed race trappers, traders and bullwhackers commonly wore them in place of a belt.
Elizabeth A. Dear, former curator of the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana, writes that some critics have said Russell wore sashes to live up to the public’s expectations of an artist’s eccentricity—but she does not agree. Dear says Russell wore them because he liked them. Russell’s protégé Joe De Young and old friend James W. Bollinger agreed. Bollinger said, “It was simply a part of Charlie, certainly not an artistic affectation or a sign of pretentiousness.”
Sashes were worn in Texas and abroad in Canada, France and Italy. They were knotted at one side with the ends dangling down to the knees. Out West, they were worn by gamblers, Tejanos, saloonkeepers and the sporting crowd, including James “Wild Bill” Hickok.
Russell also used his sash to store his art supplies when he was traveling horseback. “All the breeds wear them,” he said. He also said, “I believe they keep me from having a big belly.”
Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian, board president of the Arizona Historical Society and vice president of the Wild West History Association. His latest book is Arizona’s Outlaws and Lawmen; History Press, 2015.
If you have a question, write: Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org