The cowboy hat is a high-crowned, wide-brimmed
hat best known as the defining piece of attire for the North
American cowboy. Today it is worn by many people, and is
particularly associated with ranch workers in the western and
southern United States, western Canada and northern Mexico, with
country-western singers, and for participants in the North
American rodeo circuit.
It is recognized around the world as
part of Old West cowboy lore. The shape of a cowboy hat's crown
and brim are often modified by the wearer for fashion and to
protect against weather.
It is an item of apparel that can be
worn in any corner of the world, and receive immediate
recognition as part of North American cowboy culture.
first western model was the open crowned "Boss of the plains,"
and after that came the front creased Carlsbad, destined to
become “the” cowboy style. The high crowned, wide brimmed, soft
felt western hats that followed are intimately associated with
the cowboy image.
Modern cowboy hats are made of fur-based felt, straw or, less
often, leather. They are sold with a tall, rounded crown and a
wide flat brim. They have a simple sweat band on the inside to
stabilize the fit of the head, and usually a small decorative
hat band on the outside of the crown. Hats are customized by
creasing the crown and rolling the brim. Often a more decorative
hat band is added. In some places, "stampede strings" or "wind
strings" are also attached.
Hats can be manufactured in
virtually any color, but are most often seen in shades of beige,
brown and black. Beginning in the 1940s, pastel colors were
introduced, seen often on hats worn by movie cowboys and rodeo
riders. "Today's cowboy hat has remained basically unchanged in
construction and design since the first one was created in 1865
by J.B. Stetson."
The concept of a broad-brimmed hat with a high
crown worn by a rider on horseback can be seen as far back as
the Mongolian horsemen of the 13th century. A tall crown
provided insulation, the wide brim, shade. In hot, sunny
climates, hats evolved to have wide brims, such as the sombrero
It is not clear when the cowboy hat began to be named as
such. Westerners originally had no standard headwear. People
moving West wore many styles of hat, including top hats,
derbies, remains of Civil War headgear, sailor hats and
everything else. Contrary to popular belief, it was the bowler
and not the cowboy hat that was the most popular in the American
West, prompting Lucius Beebe to call it "the hat that won the
West." The working cowboy wore wide-brimmed, high-crowned hats
long before the invention of the modern design. However, credit
for "invention" of the cowboy hat as it is known today is
generally given to John Batterson Stetson.
The original "Boss of the plains," manufactured by Stetson in
1865, was flat-brimmed, had a straight sided crown, with rounded
corners. These light-weight, waterproof hats, were natural in
color, with four inch crowns and brims. A plain hatband was
fitted to adjust head size. The sweatband bore Stetson’s name.
While only making one style of hat, they came in different
qualities ranging from one-grade material at five dollars apiece
to pure beaver felt hats for thirty dollars each. J.B. Stetson
was the first to market the "Boss of the plains," to Cowboys,
where it has remained the universal image of the American West.
The charisma of the West was carried back East when adventurers
returned in the expensive “Boss of the plains,” style hat. In
the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, a hat was
an indispensable item in every man’s wardrobe. Stetson focused
on expensive, high-quality hats that represented both a real
investment for the working cowboy and statement of success for
the city dweller.
The durability and water-resistance of the original Stetson
obtained additional publicity in 1912, when the battleship USS
Maine was raised from Havana harbor, where it had sunk in 1898.
A Stetson hat was found in the wreck, which had been submerged
in seawater for 14 years. The hat had been exposed to ooze, mud,
and plant growth. However, the hat was cleaned off, and appeared
to be undamaged.
Ornamentation, such as bows or buckles, was attached on the left
side. Historically this had a practical purpose. Because the
majority of people are generally right-handed, in the absence of
a wide brim, bows or feathers on the right side of headwear
could interfere with the use of weapons.
Inside the cowboy hat is a memorial bow to past hatters, who
developed brain damage from treating felt with toxic mercury
(which gave rise to the expression "Mad as a Hatter"). The bow
on the inside hatband at the rear of the hat resembles a Skull
and crossbones. "Early hatters used mercury in the making of
their felt. Their bodies absorbed mercury, and after several
years of making hats, the hatters developed violent and
uncontrollable muscle twitching. The ignorance of the times
caused people to attribute these strange gyrations to madness,
The modern cowboy hat has remained basically unchanged in
construction and underlying design since the Stetson creation.
The cowboy hat quickly developed the capability, even in the
early years, to identify its wearer as someone associated with
the West. "Within a decade the name John B. Stetson became
synonymous with the word "hat," in every corner and culture west
of the Mississippi."
The shape of the hat's crown and brim were
often modified by the wearer for fashion and to protect against
weather by being softened in hot steam, shaped, and allowed to
dry and cool. Felt tends to stay in the shape that it dries.
Because of the ease of personalization, it was often possible
for people to tell where a cowboy hat was from, right down to
which ranch, simply by looking at the crease in the crown.
Later as the mystique of the "Wild West" was popularized by
entertainers such as Buffalo Bill Cody and western movies
starring actors such as Tom Mix, the Cowboy hat came to
symbolize the American West. John Wayne christened them "the hat
that won the West." The Boss of the plains design influenced
various wide-brimmed hats worn by farmers and ranchers all over
the United States. Later designs were customized for law
enforcement, military and motion pictures.
The first American law-enforcement agency to adopt Stetson’s
western hat as part of their uniform was the Texas Rangers. A
Stetson-based design is also part of the ceremonial uniform of
the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Presidents Harry Truman,
Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon B Johnson wore cowboy hats
manufactured by Stetson.
Creases in cowboy hats are used to give hats individual
character and to help users identify with a particular
subculture. A very popular crease used on modern cowboy hats is
the Cattlemen. It is creased right down the center of the crown
with a dent on each side. Returning in popularity is the
Carlsbad crease, now sometimes called a "Gus crease" after a
character in Lonesome Dove. It maintains a high crown at the
back with the crease sloping steeply toward the front. The rodeo
crease, the bullrider's crease (Formerly called the RCA crease,
for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association), the quarter
horse crease, and the “tycoon," with a pinched front, are also
"Ten gallon" hat
Some cowboy hats have
been called "ten gallon" hats. The term came into use about
1925. There are multiple theories for how the concept arose.
Stetson hat company boasted that the tight weave of most
Stetsons hats made them sufficiently waterproof to be used as a
bucket. Early print advertising by Stetson showed a cowboy
giving his horse a drink of water from a hat. However, even the
Stetson company notes that a "ten gallon" hat only holds 3
quarts (about 3 L instead of 40 L).
Another theory is that the term "ten gallon" is a corruption
of the Spanish term "galón", or galloon, a type of narrow
braided trimming around the crown, possibly a style adapted by
Spanish cowboys. When Texas cowboys misunderstood the word "galón"
for "gallon", the popular, though incorrect, legend may have
been born. According to Reynolds and Rand, "The term ten-gallon
did not originally refer to the holding capacity of the hat, but
to the width of a Mexican sombrero hatband, and is more closely
related to this unit of measurement by the Spanish than to the
water-holding capacity of a Stetson.”
Either way, using a hat as a water container is apt to
seriously damage a modern hat. On one hand, fur felt hats were
designed in part so they could be used in the rain. However,
wool felt hats were designed for dry climates, and most straw
hats can only handle a light rain for a brief time. While a very
high quality felt hat made from animal fur may hold water, over
time, any cloth container will leak. Furthermore, modern hats
react differently to getting wet, depending on the quality of
the materials used in construction. They are generally likely to
lose shape and the felt may also soften up if they are