Few articles of clothing tell you more about the wearer than the cowboy hat. In fact, it’s probably tied with the yarmulke for “most defining headwear!” When you see someone wearing a cowboy hat, it’s a pretty safe bet that the person knows his way around a horse, or, at the very least, around a country and western song.
There are a couple of theories about the origin of the cowboy hat. For the sake of at least appearing unbiased, I will present both of the predominant theories. Some people believe the cowboy hat, as we know it, evolved from the Mexican sombrero. Boy, it seems you can’t get through a day with an evolutionism vs. creationism argument, even when discussing cowboy hats! I suppose it’s possible that the cowboy hat is a cousin of the sombrero through some sort of headwear big bang theory. But, as for me, I prefer to believe that some thoughtful and sensitive designer in the American West created the cowboy hat. Most people believe that designer to be none other than John B. Stetson. (Okay, so much for appearing unbiased!)
As far as how the design came about, there are a couple of tall tales! One story says that Stetson had traveled west for health reasons. During a hunting trip, he fashioned a no-sew, cloth hat from beaver fur, without weaving. Why? Legend has it that he was in the middle of a testosterone-filled, brag session with friends. As a joke, he wore the hat for the rest of the trip, and to his great surprise, he was very impressed with its utility. Following the trip, he decided to manufacture what is now known as the cowboy hat. Another version of the Stetson story says he created the hat while panning for gold in Colorado. Again, he is said to have created the first hat from beaver fur felt. In both versions of the story, Stetson became fond of the warmth and protection of (what must have been a sight to behold) the first cowboy hat.
But, hold onto yer hats! There is reason to believe that Stetson might have borrowed the idea for the Stetson hat from a hat designed by Christy’s Hats in England. England???!!!! (I will pause for the collective gasp.) There is documentation that Christy’s produced the first ten-gallon hat. Stetson even lost a patent case with Christy’s. This resulted in Stetson paying a licensing fee to market the Stetson hat.
However it happened, in 1865, the John B. Stetson Co. was founded. The original hat style was called the “Boss of the Plains”. The Boss of the Plains was first sold in Central City, Colorado. In 1869, John B. Stetson returned to his home in Philadelphia, where he continued to churn out his $5 Stetson for the masses. By 1886, the John B. Stetson Co. was the largest hat manufacturer in the world. The company ceased manufacturing in 1970, began again in the 1980s and went bankrupt in 1986. But, the cowboy-hat-wearing-world wasn’t ready to bid farewell to the Stetson. Hatco, Inc. is currently manufacturing the Stetson.
Stetson hats have graced the heads of everyone from John Wayne to the Lone Ranger, from Annie Oakley to Trisha Yearwood. You can even visit the Stetson hat worn by J.R. Ewing on the television show “Dallas,” at the Smithsonian National Museum. The Stetson is still pretty much a part of the unspoken dress code for all country music crooners. A flat-brimmed version is even worn with the Canadian Mounties’ dress uniform.
The cowboy hat still serves both fashion and function. You can even tell a lot about a person by the crease of his Stetson. However it is worn, it is interesting to note that, more than 150 years after its creation, the Boss of the Plains continues to be Stetson’s biggest seller.
Hats off, Mr. Stetson. Hats off.
Happy Trails, y’all!