How Did the Cowboy Hat Become So Popular?

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Show up at any country music concert or turn on your favorite Western flick, and you’re sure to see the classic cowboy uniform: thick boots, sturdy jeans, and a broad-brimmed cowboy hat. The cowboy hat is an iconic fixture of the Wild West, but that wasn’t always the case. So just how did this iconic headpiece come to be associated with the horse-riding, cattle ranchers of American lore?

Before the Cowboy Hat

Man with a bowler hat on
Credit: bloodstone/ iStock

In the heyday of American expansion, most people who ventured out West simply brought their own hats with them, so you’d often spot strange headpieces like Civil War kepis and even top hats.

But typically, the preferred hat of choice was the bowler hat. Also known as a derby hat, the bowler was a black, rounded cap that was highly fashionable in Europe and Eastern cities in the mid-1800s. Bowler hats fit the head well and stayed put in windy conditions, but beyond that they weren’t the most practical choice for Western wear. The short brim did little to keep the sun off the neck, and most were made out of wool, which didn’t stand up well to rain and long years of wear and tear. Still, without an alternative, they remained ever-present, and even famed gunslingers like Butch Cassidy and Billy the Kid were pictured wearing bowler hats.

In addition to bowler hats, the Mexican sombrero and wool caps were also popular but came with their own drawbacks. In fact, until the 1860s, there wasn’t a wholly practical option for those hoping to make their way on the Western frontier.

Enter John Stetson

Person wearing a boss of the plains hat
Credit: wx1993/ Unsplash

In the mid-1850s, a young John B. Stetson, the son of a New Jersey hatmaker, ventured west to improve his health and make his fortune. He made it all the way to Colorado, where he hoped to enjoy the spoils of the Gold Rush, but returned to the East Coast with barely $100 in his pocket. Still, his experience had given him a new idea for a business.

Inspired by the barely-adequate hats of the West, Stetson put his hat making background to good use and began designing a new head piece. In 1865, he opened the John B. Stetson Company in Philadelphia, and began producing felt hats of his own design.

The most popular of his offerings was the “Boss of the Plains” hat, a rather simple design that mimicked the rounded crown of the bowler hat but greatly expanded the brim. Built for durability, the hat was perfect for working Westerners who spent a lot of time outdoors. Demand quickly soared, with Western retailers buying up as much of Stetson’s supply as they could get their hands on.  

The “Boss of the Plains” was sturdy and easy to repair, but its shape and structure changed over time as it was exposed to the elements. The brim began to curl up, and they often creased in the peak. Eventually, this weathered look became preferred, and Stetson altered its design to include the curled brim and dented peak.

An added bonus of the new design? It would allow the wearer to easily remove the hat by the peak instead of the bill, thus preserving the thin brim. And according to cowboy hat etiquette, gentlemen were encouraged to remove their hats often, as a sign of respect when entering places like church.

A Dash of Hollywood Glamor

Cowboy hat on a fence
Credit: BrandonV/ Shutterstock

When Wild West picture shows made it to the silver screen, the cowboy uniform became solidified in American cultural memory. Costume designers in Hollywood began putting their own spins on the classic hat, and movie stars popularized styles such as the 10-gallon hat, which became a quintessential piece of cowboy wardrobe. (Interestingly, 10-gallon does not refer to the amount of liquid the hat can hold; rather, the name was adopted from the Spanish word “galón”, which referred to braided bands that wrapped around the hat.)

Classic Westerns like “High Noon” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” popularized these cowboy hat fashions, with stars like John Wayne inspiring the masses to rush out and buy their own Stetsons. Hats became important symbols in these films, with the hero often wearing a white hat while he faces off against a villain wearing a black hat.

The cowboy hat eventually made a full circle, with Wild West films influencing real-life cowboy uniforms. Soon, everyone from real cattle ranchers to celebrities were donning their own take on the hat.

All Hat and No Horse

Father and son sitting together with cowboy hats on
Credit: ferrantraite/ iStock

In the years since its introduction, the cowboy hat has become synonymous with the rugged spirit of the American West — worn by many who embody (or wish to embody) that persona. Nearly every country music star has donned the iconic headpiece, and even several presidents were well known for covering their heads with a Stetson. In fact, Lyndon B Johnson was so famous for wearing Stetson’s Open Road hat that it’s still often referred to as the LBJ hat.

In 2015, Texas, the state perhaps most associated with cowboy culture, designated the cowboy hat its official state hat, with the legislature saying: “The cowboy hat symbolizes both the state’s iconic western culture and the uniqueness of its residents, and it is indeed appropriate that this stylish and dignified apparel receive special legislative recognition.”

These days, you don’t need to run a ranch to wear a cowboy hat, and you’ll find the perfect one to meet your personality, whether you want one made of cowhide or straw, one with feathers or jewels, or even twinkling lights.

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