Recent political debate over expensive campaign clothing tabs from Neiman Marcus brought to mind the late Fern Sawyer, one of the founders of the National Cutting Horse Association.
Born into a hardscrabble West Texas ranching family in 1917, Sawyer became an ardent Neiman’s customer soon after oil was discovered on the U.D. Sawyer ranch in the 1940s. To celebrate the occasion, U.D. and Dessie Sawyer gave Fern and her sister Myrl each $50,000 for a Dallas shopping spree. Fern spent $27,000 the first day.
“Fern had a lot of passions,” said Myrl Good of her sister, during a special exhibition of Fern’s western wardrobe at Neiman’s in Fort Worth in 1999. “Her first passion was riding horses and the second was to be well dressed when she was riding a horse.”
Somewhat of an Auntie Mame of the rodeo set, Sawyer had an appetite for the finer things in life and a style all her own. She wore rhinestone-studded bras, when Madonna still evoked motherhood. Her boots, all 200 pair, were custom made in every color of the rainbow, as were her hats and chaps. One of her favorite wraps was a purple mink from Neiman’s, and her two poodles, which she ordered steak for via room service every day when she was on the road, sported Neiman’s mink coats with rhinestone collars.
During the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where she served as a platform committee member from New Mexico, Sawyer posed for an AP photo that appeared in newspapers across the country. In the photo she is adorned in Native American jewelry, with her long black hair fixed in a braid, and she is smoking a pipe.
“Fern loved attention,” said her good friend Pat Hall. “But one of the greatest things about her was that she had so many friends in so many places, not just in geography but in lifestyle.”
As a young woman, Sawyer competed against men in rodeo and cutting events, and continued to ride horses and work cattle until the day she died at 76. Later in her life, one of her greatest pleasures was to lead the post parade of the All American Quarter Horse Futurity at Ruidoso Downs, where she dazzled spectators with her sequined outfits and bright smile.
“She’d ride into an arena like the whole place belonged to her,” said her neighbor Wes Smith. “Everywhere you went with her, she would draw a crowd. People that didn’t know her would wonder who she was.
“The first time I met her, I was sitting on a bench in front of friend’s house and this Cadillac pulled up and Fern steps out with tight black pants tucked into her boots and a black hat on, and I thought, look at this.
“She walked right up and sat down on the bench with me and asked if I had a chew of Copenhagen. I did and she got herself a chew and we sat there and spit and talked a little bit and then she went inside the house.”
“It must have been the sheer vitality of her personality,” wrote Dean Flenniken upon Sawyer’s death in 1993, of her ability to captivate. “She was quite simply full of LIFE. It came in the door with her and hovered around her like loose electricity.
“Fern said she regretted nothing in her life except not having ‘done more’ of it, although how anyone could have squeezed any more thrills and spills into one life is hard to imagine.”
An exhibit featuring some of Sawyer’s wardrobe can be seen at the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Museum in Fort Worth.