Rural American fashion has come a long way from the anticipated arrival of Wells Fargo wagons or well-thumbed mail-order catalogs. With small-town niche boutiques and almost limitless online options, far-flung fashion fans can get just about anything they want.
“I feel like the rural customer—they know a lot more about what they want,” says Jessi Roberts, founder of Cheekys, a boutique company geared toward rural women. “They are looking for good quality, something that puts a smile on their face. I don’t have to meet the superficial demands I feel someone who is designing for an urban customer would have to.”
In a rural fashion industry long dominated by big businesses such as Wrangler, Levi and Boot Barn, innovative smaller companies such as Cheekys and Rural Cloth—a company capitalizing on the theme “America, We Grow Beer”—are winning fans.
In her life story, “Backroads Boss Lady: Happiness Ain’t a Side Hustle—Straight Talk on Creating the Life You Deserve,” Jessi talks about New York’s misplaced judgment of small-town America.
“Thanks to some book called ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ there’s a perception in cities like New York that people in small towns should be pitied because we’re too stupid and lazy to know our lives would be better in the city,” Jessi says. “Well, I don’t believe that at all. I’ve lived in Texas. I’ve lived in Boise. I live in New Plymouth, Idaho, population 1,538, because I want to live here. I want to raise my kids here. And I run a company for all the women in all the little towns like New Plymouth who feel the same way.”
Jessi started her company in New Plymouth—which is just east of the Oregon border—as a tiny tanning salon, with a few purses and fashion items sold mostly to provide some decoration. She soon realized women weren’t interested in tanning, but were aching for fun fashion.
She sold the tanning beds and used the money to bring in more merchandise. She started to manufacture her own line of clothing and accessories and sell it to 35,000 small boutiques like hers.
Admittedly, not all rural residents have the luxury to shop locally for fashion. Distance to retail outlets can be a challenge for people who live in remote areas, and a desire to dress fashionably is tempered by the need to dress for function.
About a year ago, Marci and Jim Pettingill moved from North Las Vegas to a rural Nevada community about halfway between Vegas and St. George, Utah.
Marci’s tastes have always been fashion forward, but moving to the country resulted in inevitable changes.
“Our property is actually rural,” Marci says. “It’s not in a neighborhood. We have dirt and gravel and chickens and uneven surfaces. Just tonight I ran out to feed the chickens, and I just threw on my Birkenstock sandals. I was thinking, ‘Why did I do that?’”
Marci has learned closed-toe shoes are best to keep crud out of your toes. She has a few fashionable pairs of mules for going out, but her go-to chicken mucking shoes are Crocs.
While Marci and the women around her aren’t eager to look like they hopped off a tractor, Marci says fashion frequently answers to function.
“This is a farm town,” she explains, “and it doesn’t make sense to get super cute if you have to go out and feed pigs or take care of the cows and goats or whatever, and that’s what everybody has all around.”
That said, Marci says she makes an effort to make herself and her kids look put-together for church on Sunday or big community events such as football games.
She has noticed others go all-out, with little girls in fancy hair bows that make her feel like she needs to “up her game” and make sure her daughter, Laura, “has her hair at least brushed.”
The Leavitt family—parents Tyson and Annie, and kids Rodney, Phoebe, Abby and Lucy—who live a few minutes from the Pettingills, are at least an hour away from a well-rounded retail establishment.
There is a Walmart about 40 minutes away in Mesquite and a Bealls. A few minutes away there’s a Family Dollar, which Annie admits has come in handy when she needed last-second socks or underwear for the kids.
But if she wants to do serious shopping, she turns to her computer.
“I’m pretty antisocial,” she says, “so shopping online is my favorite pick. The kids are older and don’t enjoy hand-me-downs. We get most of their clothes before school starts online from Old Navy and Target.”
She orders shoes from Zappos, which offers free shipping and free returns.
When the kids were younger, Annie says she got by without investing in fancy clothes, but influences are changing that.
“Fashion isn’t huge out here, which is a nice relief,” she says, “but because of social media/online influences, my kids know what the Kardashians are wearing, and that determines what they like/don’t like. I’m trying to teach them that quality and style matter, and that really style is timeless. But arguing with hormones is a lose-lose game for all involved.”
If shopping for celebrity-wowed kids seems hard, try shopping for husbands.
“Tyson hates clothes,” Annie says. “We order his work pants online. He still has the same casual clothes from several years ago that I force him to wear on dates or for family photos. For his job as a commercial electrician, he wears pants and a work shirt, and changes into a T-shirt and shorts after work. We order his work boots online. I like to go to Nordstrom Rack for his church and casual shoes because there’s a large selection in his size of quality shoes.”
If anyone understands Tyson’s perspective, it’s Andrew Webecke.
Andrew and his wife, Kristina, live in Snowville, Utah—a town of just more than 150 residents. It is about 30 minutes from the closest grocery store, 50 minutes from the nearest Walmart and roughly an hour and 20 minutes from any other retail store.
Andrew’s favorite shopping venue is campsaver.com. While he frequently buys online, he says it is best when he can visit the retail store in Logan, Utah.
As at home, you flip through a computer catalog and pick out what you want. A salesperson goes to the warehouse and fetches your potential purchases. Dressing rooms are available, so you can try on items and buy only what fits.
By necessity, Andrew says, his family does a lot of shopping online. Getting things in the mail is easy, but he says it is a hassle to ship an item back if it’s the wrong size or different than pictured.
“UPS or FedEx is at least an hour drive, and it’s not super convenient to try to get them to come pick stuff up from you,” he says. “A lot of places have a good return policy, but that’s assuming you’re going to get back into town.”
Andrew says he’s not super fashion-focused, but his kids are exposed to more trendy styles through school.
Andrew’s 19-year-old daughter, Hannah, says comfort is key, along with clothes to fit the seasons, which include deep snow in winter and severe heat and wind in summer.
“You run into things you don’t in town,” Andrew says. “In town, you’re not worried about the foxtail grass that gets stuck in your clothes.”
He says people he knows do not try to dress like stereotypical cowboys, but when working on a farm, the style makes sense.
“It comes down to function,” he says. “Think about bicycles. If you dressed the way bicyclists do for fashion, you’d probably get your butt kicked. But if you get on a bicycle and you realize, ‘OK, I’m wearing this clothing because it doesn’t catch the wind, and it breathes better and it’s not getting caught in the chain,’ you start realizing that everything having to do with cycling is function and has nothing to do with fashion.
“It’s kind of the same thing in country living. As soon as you hop on a horse and you start riding, you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s why they wear pants like they do.’ I’ve got normal-sized feet, but when I try to wear something that’s not a Western-style riding boot, I can’t get my feet quick in and out of the stirup. It starts catching. You move away from the canvas and lightweight nylon because it gets torn up so fast.”
For some rural consumers, more than just distance deters shopping local. In Southport, Florida, retail accessibility has been complicated by a natural disaster.
“The mall closest to me was destroyed in Hurricane Michael,” says Kristin Evans, vice president of marketing and communications for Gulf Coast Electric Cooperative. “The only clothing store that reopened was Dillard’s, although J.C. Penney says they plan to re-open.”
That will be helpful, since Kristin likes the Ralph Lauren clothing brand for her 5-year-old son, Jameson, for church, school pictures and special programs.
Kristin relies on Target and Walmart for children’s play clothes and sometimes even school clothes for Jameson and 2-year-old Courtney, “since many days my kids come home wearing part of their lunch and/or art project.”
T.J Maxx recently reopened, and Marshalls is 30 to 45 minutes away at the Pier Park shopping complex in Panama City Beach. Destin is about an hour and a half away, and Tallahassee is about two hours, but the busy working mom says she rarely makes the drive.
Much of her shopping is done via social media.
“I already have my daughter’s first day of school outfit in hand, and I have ordered her outfits to wear to the National Peanut Festival in Dothan, Alabama, in November, to the pumpkin patch in October and for pictures in a cotton field in the fall,” Kristin says.
Growing up in the tiny town of Marianna, Florida, Kristin frequented a few locally owned children’s shops—her mom emphasized shopping sales—but most of the time they would travel 30 minutes north to the mall in Dothan.
“I still love to shop in Dothan, but it is not the same as it used to be,” Kristin says. “So many stores have closed due to online shopping, and I know that I contribute to that. In today’s fast-paced society, it is easier for people to shop via their computer, phone or laptop and have items shipped straight to their door, especially since so many online retailers offer free shipping and returns, making it no risk to try something.”