A Rural Fashion Statement
July 20th, 2019 by Ginger Meurer

The Leavitts—from left, Phoebe, Lucy, Tyson, Annie, Rodney and Abigail—love their rural life in Nevada, despite the challenge of being so far removed from shopping. They depend on online options.
Photo by Reyanna Jarrel/Rey of Light Photography

Distance-challenged consumers go online for forward-thinking yet functional styles

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.”

Online Shoppers Count On Instagram Bloggers for Help

Kristin Evans and Marci Pettingill turn to these fashion bloggers on Instagram for online shopping insights and tips.

“They’ll get on their stories and do try-on sessions,” Marci says. “They’ll give you their measurements and describe how things fit so you know to size up in this pair of pants or size down. I have shopped a ton through Instagram story bloggers because I can see how things fit, and I can have it shipped to my house.”

Piper & Scoot
136K followers, based in Draper, Utah
They offer twirl-worthy dresses and flutter sleeve shirts.

When Kylee and Nate Middleton—aka Piper & Scoot—met, married and combined their household, it was apparent Kylee’s extensive closet needed to slim down. She started selling clothes to family and friends on Instagram. That was so much fun, she decided to chase her dream of owning a clothing boutique. She vows to only carry items she’s tempted to add to her own closet. “You should be head over heels for every piece of clothing you own,” Kylee writes. “Wearing an outfit that I feel confident in helps me to be my best self and I hope it can be the same for you.”

J’s Everyday Fashion
56.6K followers, based in Florida
No models, Photoshop or fancy backdrops. Real women talk real fashion.
Jeanette Johnson provides a study of one woman’s closet, sharing failed attempts, experiments, successes, what she wears to events in her own life, and what she might wear if she worked in an office or was a busy mom. She is about empowering women—inspiring them to embrace “the audacity to enjoy yourself” through practical fashion without the frills.

Matilda Jane
156K followers, based in Fort Wayne, Indiana

It features clothing for babies, girls, tweens and adults, with a whimsical approach to texture, pattern and color, along with a few boys’ and men’s items, accessories, home decor and toys.

Founded by Denise DeMarchis, the line is designed to preserve little girls’ desire to twirl. Products are available online or through independent trunk keepers.

“I have a friend who is a Matilda Jane trunk keeper—and she is trying her best to get me to be one, too!” Kristin says. “The clothing is all very well made out of soft fabrics with a lot of detail.”

Lee Anne Benjamin
241K followers, based in Austin, Texas

She features the best of big retailers like Nordstrom, American Eagle, Loft, Amazon, Abercrombie, and even Walmart and Target, through her website and her husband’s website, dylan.lifebylee.com.

Lee uses her lifestyle blog to share her experiences with like-minded women. Fans get a peek at more than just her fashion hauls. They learn more about her mom experiences and her “coffee-obsessed and crazy busy life.”

The Spoiled Home
279K followers, based in Oklahoma

It features home decor and furnishings, cute clothing, makeup, shoes, unique accessories and sales, sales, sales.

Sandi and Shalia—the two friends behind the blog—met more than a decade ago when Sandi became Shalia’s hairstylist. Sandi is Native American (Seminole, Creek and Choctaw). Shalia is a high school English teacher who has run in three marathons, one with Sandi.

Jen Reed
478K followers, based in Dallas, Texas

She features affordable everyday clothing from Abercrombie, American Eagle, Ann Taylor, Amazon, Express, Banana Republic, Nordstrom and Target.

The mom of two says she lives on coffee, wine and a lot of humor. Expect more than fashion tips. Jen offers travel advice, beauty tips and even weighs in on the challenges of parenting. She’s just as likely to demonstrate a new face wash or razor as she is to do a try-on session.

Outfitting Rural Americans in Quality

For years, Brandon Bates worked the Professional Bull Riders circuit as an announcer before founding Rural Cloth—a hat and clothing outfitter that caters to a rural crowd.

“We design, source and ship everything ourselves,” proclaims the company’s website. “There are no department store middlemen or unnecessary layers. Every thread and stitch is placed with American craftsmanship in mind because the heartland deserves a brand that’s tailored to the rural lifestyle.”

Brandon and his wife live in Utah, but he draws his rural connection from the Oklahoma farm his maternal grandfather started when his mother was a kid.

“We still have this multi-generational family farm and ranch,” Brandon says. “My parents still live there. My aunts and uncles still live there, and I visit there quite a bit.”

Brandon says he had a comfortable life as a PBR announcer, but he wanted more.

“We were born with the single largest winning lottery ticket in the history of humankind, and we all have it if we have citizenship in America,” Brandon says. “What we choose to do with that lottery ticket is totally up to us.”

His focus has been on developing high-end retro ’80s-style jackets and vests. His biggest hits have been in the T-shirt and hat market.

“We created this fun little concept called ‘America, We Grow Beer.’ We thought it was fun,” Brandon says. “It was more of a celebratory thing for the American farmer. It has taken off like a rocket.”