Elaine Agather is changing clothes in a horse stall inside Will Rogers Memorial Center when I ask her how she managed life as a working mom with two young daughters early on in her career.
To be specific, she’s changing from a rhinestone-covered red, white and blue Western suit to a turquoise rhinestone-covered Western suit. She has the hat to match too.
Although you’ve never seen Elaine Agather changing in a stall like this, you’ve probably seen her before. It could have been on a list of most powerful, thanks to her role as chair of J.P. Morgan Chase’s Dallas region, and south region head of J.P. Morgan Private Bank. Or it might be due to the position she took over from Ed Bass as the chairman of the board for Performing Arts Fort Worth. Maybe you’re one of her daughter Bradley Agather Means’ 40K-plus Instagram followers, and you’ve spotted her in your feed. But if you’ve been in Fort Worth long, you most likely spotted her at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo Grand Entry once over the last 26 years. She has ridden in every show (save for one she missed for a business event) since 1992. At 36 rodeo performances a year, that’s more than 900 rides. And the ride waits for no one, which is why Agather knows exactly how long it takes to get to Will Rogers from her home — 7 minutes.
She’s earned her rhinestone-studded stripes too. Often described as the “best-dressed cowgirl in Will Rogers Coliseum,” her outfits have evolved throughout the years. She remembers buying a cheap black plastic hat for the first Stock Show parade. It was sleeting that year, and by the end of the parade, there were black streaks falling down her face. Her wardrobe upgrades are partly thanks to her husband, Neils Agather, executive director of The Burnett Foundation, who has taken an interest in gifting her Western outfits. “He started finding vintage outfits,” Agather says. “He had this one made in California. And he’s done a great job. He won’t ever let me know where he gets it.”
Agather talks about the outfits like they’re her children. “For the vintage ones, I make up stories about the cowgirl [who used to own it] and what her life was like.” And she says she loves them all equally. “They are all my favorites. I’ll probably have to give them all to the museum when I die.” Agather is referring to the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame that sits just a couple blocks from where we’re standing, largely thanks to her. Agather was on the advisory board when they raised more than $20 million for the museum to build a new facility in the Cultural District and relocate from Hereford, Texas, in the late ‘90s.
Although most see Agather, a Sherman native, as an authentic cowgirl, thanks to that more than quarter of a century of grand entry riding under her belt buckle, she thinks that honor goes to others in the Stock Show circle. “These women in the stock show business are so strong and full of grit and hardy and happy. They make it happen. They really, really are the heroes. Then they go home and keep the family together.” Agather tells them that, too, quickly moving out of the way of a cowgirl walking by leading her horse. “Y’all are the real deal,” she says.
She assumes those that want a picture with her think she’s just a character in the show. “When I walk from the parking lot to go ride, people stop and say, ‘Can I get your picture?’ I think they think I’m a character walking around [like at Disney World]. There’s no telling how many people I’ve taken pictures with who think I’m ‘one of the characters.’”
I ask her what her favorite part is of any given Western outfit, expecting the hats, the boots, a piece of clothing. But no, it’s the color. “I love all the colors, and I love the ability to make people smile when I ride by. It’s old. It’s young. It’s kids. I ride because of what [the Stock Show] does for these kids. I love that Dale Evans and Roy Rogers rode here.”
And her favorite part of the grand entry is after the ride is over. “When I come back, they are usually playing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ Every single person stops and takes their hat off. I think the cows even stop.”
Another cowgirl walks by as our conversation draws to a close. Elaine takes notice. “You’re so cute; let’s get your picture.”
Nudie Cohn, whom Rolling Stone referred to as “the world’s flashiest country and western stylist” in 1969, was the first to design the rhinestone-covered suits now known as “Nudie Suits.” Elaine Agather beamed recounting the famous story of Roy Rogers requesting that Cohn make an outfit blingy enough for kids in the balcony of Madison Square Garden to see him from the stands.
1. Fashion designer Nudie Cohn (left) and Elvis Presley pose in this publicity photo. Elvis is wearing the famous gold lame suit designed by Cohn. Micky Moore Collection [digital resource], Pepperdine University Special Collections and University Archives.
2. Porter Wagoner singing at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 1999 in a Nudie Suit.
3. Nudie Cohn and Gram Parsons.