Functional Fashion

Lesson Plan


Students will focus on the clothing of the vaqueros in Walker’s painting and explore the connections between fashion and function. Students will also design and draw their own pieces of clothing that combine fashion with an unusual function.

Intended Age Group

Secondary (grades 6-12)

Length of Lesson

One 55 minute lesson

Standards Area

Visual Arts


Students will be able to:

  • identify and describe details in Walker’s painting;
  • describe the connections between function and fashion;
  • work together to create an unusual garment; and
  • connect what they learn about fashion a work of art.


  1. Warm-up: Divide students into groups and give each group a set of random objects. Have students come up with at least three uses for each object that have nothing to do with its everyday use. Help them by telling them to imagine what the objects might be if they were five inches tall or from another planet. Set the norm that no idea is “stupid,” and that when brainstorming every idea should be written down no matter how farfetched. Call on the groups one at a time to share their favorite idea for each object with the class.
  2. Show students Cowboys Roping a Bear. What’s going on in the painting? What did they notice first? What’s their favorite part? What’s their least favorite part? What artistic elements (brushstrokes, color, texture, shadows, etc.) do they see? Weave in information from the About the Art section when possible.
  3. Ask students to focus on the clothing of the vaqueros. Explain that most parts of the outfit were functional in some way. Have them try to guess the function of each part of the outfit, encouraging them to consider things such as the materials used, placement on the body, etc. Write their ideas on the board.
  4. Divide the students into groups and distribute clothing catalogues or magazines. Ask the groups to find photos of people wearing various styles of clothing. Have students journal different ways in which the clothing is both fashionable and functional. For example, a cute winter coat also keeps us warm; a ballroom gown allows a dancer to move her body but is also beautiful; a sports jersey gives athletes mobility but also helps fans identify who is on what team.
  5. Now that the groups have explored both function and fashion, invite them to design and draw garments that are fashionable, yet serve a unique function. For example, students might design a garment that could be worn by a violinist who performs underwater, a ballroom dancer in zero gravity, a basketball player in the Artic, etc. To begin, the students will have to identify what elements are crucial for their extreme fashions to be functional, then figure out a way to incorporate those characteristics in a fashionable way.
  6. When the students are finished drawing their garments, have them write a museum-style label for their artwork explaining the situation and the fashion of the characters.
  7. Return to Cowboys Roping a Bear. If the scenario in Walker’s painting was a scenario from a student’s drawing, how would the vaqueros need to change clothes? How would their clothes still be functional? What characteristics would their clothing need to adapt? How could they maintain their cowboy fashion?


  • An assortment of five random objects (e.g. pencil eraser, duct tape, coffee filter, etc.); one set for each group
  • Pencils/pens and paper
  • Clothing catalogues or magazines with images of various different fashions
  • About the Art section on Cowboys Roping a Bear
  • One color copy of the painting for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards

  • Visual Arts
    • Invent and Discover to Create
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
    • Envision and Critique to Reflect
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Research and Reasoning
    • Writing and Composition
    • Reading for All Purposes

21st Century Skills

  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

About the Art

Cowboys Roping a Bear

Cowboys Roping a Bear

About 1877

James Walker, United States

Who Made It?

James Walker was born in England in 1818 and moved to New York with his parents when he was a child. He lived in New York for most of his life, traveling frequently in the United States and to Mexico. He was living in Mexico City in 1846 when the Mexican War broke out. He was forced into hiding for six weeks before being able to get behind United States lines. In addition to painting scenes of the war, he was fluent in Spanish and served as an interpreter for United States troops. In the 1870s, he moved to California and was captivated by California’s romantic Mexican past. He established a studio in San Francisco, where this painting was probably made.

What Inspired It?

After moving to California, Walker often visited the ranches of his Spanish-speaking friends. This painting was probably made after a trip to a ranch near San Diego. During his visits, Walker became fascinated with the life and culture of the vaqueros [vah-CARE-ohs]—the Spanish cow and ranch hands. In this painting, the men are not roping the bear merely for amusement. In the early 1800s, grizzly bears were one of the biggest threats to cattle. While the Anglo-American style was to use heavy artillery to control threatening bears, the vaqueros preferred to rope them from the back of a well-trained horse. This method of bear control required a great deal of skill and was a dying vaquero art.


Vaquero Attire
Vaquero Attire

Vaqueros outfitted themselves in dashing yet functional dress, and Walker shows all the details:

  • Wide-brimmed hats with flat tops gave protection from the sun.
  • Thin leather jackets, similar to today’s jean jackets, were often decorated with silver. They were tough yet light and protected against thorns and bug bites.
  • Leather pants had buttons down the legs that could be buttoned or unbuttoned according to the weather.
  • Botas [BOW-tahz], leather leg wraps, were worn for extra protection against cactuses and snakes.
  • Colorful woven blankets, called serapes [sehr-AH-pehs], were rolled up and carried behind the saddles.

Most vaqueros made their own reatas [ray-AH-tahs], or ropes, by braiding four to eight strands of rawhide together. Most reatas were about 60 feet long.

The Lasso
The Lasso

The lasso is a long rope with a loop at one end that, once the rope has been accurately thrown, tightens securely around the target. It was a tricky maneuver—a vaquero used a special technique to toss the rope and quickly drape one end of it around the saddle horn, or handgrip. If he did not drape the rope around the saddle horn before the animal pulled the rope taut, the vaquero could injure a hand, even losing a finger or two between the rope and saddle horn.

The Bear
The Bear

At one time California supported the greatest number of grizzly bears in North America, but they became locally extinct by 1908. The decline of the California grizzly began during the Spanish Colonial period. At first, the bear population increased as free-ranging cattle provided an easy food source, but their numbers dropped with the increase in human settlement and the killing of grizzlies by cattlemen. Grizzlies were often captured for sport by vaqueros using only horses and ropes.

Mirror Images
Mirror Images

Walker balanced the figures in this painting by pairing each rider’s pose with the rider opposite him. For example, the two vaqueros getting ready to throw their lassos are opposite each other in similar poses. Color is also mirrored, this time left and right, as seen in the two riders wearing white shirts on white horses.

Funding for lesson plans provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.