Cowboy Hats

… and why folks wear them.

Actually, they are WESTERN hats.  Worn out west.  But because they were popularized in the “cowboy” films dating from the silent era, people started calling them cowboy hats.  Of course, stockmen wore western hats, along with many other people, because not everyone who lived out west was a rancher.

The first “western” hat, a broad-brimmed hat with a high crown, didn’t originate in the United States.  Mongolian horsemen wore similar hats as far back as the thirteenth century.  The hat has an important purpose, which is why folks wore them.  The high crown provides insulation and warmth in cold weather.  It does get mighty cold “out west.”  A wide brim keeps the sun off the wearer’s face and out of his eyes.  It also keeps the rain channeled away from the wearer’s head.  It was popular by those who lived on the western plain, hence “The Plains Hat.”  It is not a coincidence that it somewhat resembles the Mexican sombrero.  Westerners learned a lot about clothing from Mexicans.

While still a young man, doctors diagnosed John B. Stetson with life-threatening consumption.  With this knowledge, Stetson left his father’s hat-making business and headed west.  Otherwise, he reasoned, he may never get to see the wild-wild-west.  During his journey, Stetson met drovers, bullwhackers, and “cowboys.”[1]  Mr. Stetson was not well impressed with what those fellows were wearing on their heads: flea-infested coonskin caps.  Returning to Philadelphia, Stetson began manufacturing hats suitable for western wear.  The first was the plains hat, shown above.  The plains hat was practical and durable.  Heck, one could even water his horse from the plains hat.  Within a short time, the Stetson hat became the best-known hat in the American West.  It still is.  Stetson hats have been made for Texas Rangers, park rangers, cavalry troops, and even U. S. presidents.

Stetson’s first hat style in 1865 not only became popular among westerners but was appreciated in the east, as well.  Modern production western films, striving for accuracy in western attire, depict Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) and Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), and Captain Call (Tommy Lee Jones) wearing the “Boss Plains” Stetson.  Augustus McCrae (Robert Duvall) wore his hat with the brim turned up on the sides.[2]  Its wearer often modified the shape of the crown and brim by applying steam and then shaping it by hand or some other device.  Today’s basic western hat style has remained essentially unchanged in its construction and design since 1865.

Why were the brims turned up?  Stockmen started that trend; the flat brim got in the way while attempting to rope a cow or horse.  But there was an even more popular hat in the old west: The Derby (bowler) hat, mostly worn within western cities.  Bat Masterson and Luke Short were two famous gunfighters who wore the Derby hat.

Was there a connection between Stetson’s design and the earlier Tricorn hat?  Other than the fact that it was worn on the head, no.  The purpose of the tricorne was simple: to accommodate the wearing of white wigs when they were fashionable.  It is possible that migrants wore the tricorne hat en route to their western destinies and that in time the fasteners to keep the corners up became dysfunctional.  Now picture the tricorne hat without its corners.  Could this have inspired John Stetson?  Who knows?

There aren’t that many cowboys anymore — some, but not many — but there are a lot of people who celebrate America’s “old west” history by wearing western hats.  Even New Yorkers wear them — and give themselves away the moment they say something.  The genuine stockman knows, though.  If a real cowboy observes some dude at the mall wearing a western hat and highly polished boots, he’s likely to think to himself, “All hat, no horse.” And, in case you’re interested, I own three western hats and 475 horses.  I run those horses under the hood of my Ford F-350.  Yeah, okay, go ahead and laugh — but I never arrive at my destination with saddle sores.


[1] In those days, the term “cowboy” was synonymous with thug, rascal, or blackguard. During the American Revolution, the term cowboy was applied to British loyalists, its meaning “marauder.”  A person who worked as a stockman was generally referred to as a cowherd, cowman, or ranch hand. 

[2] William H. Bonney (a.k.a. Billy the Kid) wore a stovepipe hat.  What was he thinking?

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in History, Western Gear. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Cowboy Hats

  1. I too own a Stetson. A fedora.
    And I wear it regularly.
    And I have slightly fewer horses in my F-150.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Phil Strawn says:

    I did wear a hat sometimes. In the late 70s, thanks to the movie Urban Cowboy, everyone around DFW had a Stetson with large feathers on the hat. A trip to Billy Bobs in Fort Worth would confirm that everybody was a cowboy or hoping to be. My grandfather was a true cow puncher around Weatherford in the late 1890s. He wore a Fedora style hat and wouldn’t be seen in a wide brim.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mustang says:

      No doubt the smaller brim was easier to keep on a working cowman’s head. Function over form … I’ll bet your grand-Dad had a few interesting tales to tell. All most of us know about life in the old west has been related to us in books and a few (very few) truth-leaning Hollywood films. Thanks for dropping by, Phil.


    • See! Cowmen wore fedoras. And Stetson makes the best.


  3. kidme37 says:

    Interesting. Easy to see why a hat would be needed outdoors in the west and in the weather.

    Now, what would you call that black congress critter wearing the western hats. I have a couple ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      If there is any one thing that could harm the western hat industry, that could be it. Thanks for the link, Kid. Now please excuse me while I go and rinse off my eyeballs.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Pingback: Cowboy Hats — Searching History | Vermont Folk Troth

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