If there is one piece of Western wear that has become the ultimate symbol of the American Cowboy, it’s the cowboy hat. Like all Western wear, hats were made to be as tough as the trail and started off as accessories purchased based purely on function rather than fashion. A hat provided shade, protection from the elements, and warmth for the wearer, but could also be used to fan a fire, as a vessel for drinking water, or waved from horseback to catch the attention of a fellow rider in the distance. There were as many styles of cowboy hats as there were people wearing cowboy hats.
Distinct hat styles emerged by region. For example, in the Southwest, cowpunchers donned high-crowned “10-gallons” for ample shade, while in the Great Basin, Buckaroos came to prefer a “flat hat,” often made of straw and designed to stay out of the way of long lassos. Early photographs of range riders across the West show an enormous variation in hat styles, from silk “stovepipes” and derby “pots,” to sombreros and cavalry styles. In Montana Territory during the 1860s–‘80s, cowboys drove cattle up the trails from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and other regions, which led to a hodge-podge of headwear across the range. Also, many cowboys in the late 1800s and early 1900s were immigrants. For herding cattle or sheep, they simply wore the hats they stepped off the boat wearing. The first cowboy hats were made of beaver, rabbit, or other fur, but felt soon became the preferred (and priciest) material. Eventually, it became clear that certain styles were only good for certain settings (Who would wear a top hat on the plains?) and designs became increasingly functional to the places and conditions in which the cowboys were working.
John B. Stetson, the son of a New Jersey haberdasher, set the standard in the early mass production of cowboy hats with his “Boss of the Plains” model in 1863, designed while on an expedition up Pike’s Peak. His hat became all the rage in the West. However, most Stetsons got pretty beat up on the job and began to curl at the brim and lose their silk ribbons. But this distressed look became preferred to the overly-refined, fresh-off-the-line Stetson. So much so that many cowboys even began to intentionally shape their own hats by creasing the crown and curling the brim, making four dents into a peak, two dents, a center crease, two parallel creases, or simply leaving the crown rounded. Stetson soon caught on to this trend and began mass-producing creased and curled hats. In the 1940s and ‘50s, Hollywood—a space seldom concerned with historical accuracy—created its own cowboy styles on the big screen, which then rubbed off on cowboy fashion, carrying homogenized hat styles from the silver screen to the range and far beyond. Contemporary American Country Music stars—whether real cowboys or not—further popularized the wearing of cowboy hats far beyond just big cattle country.
Cowboys throughout the ages have festooned their hats with all kinds of talismans—horsehair bands, ribbons, rattlers from snakes. It’s a personal choice for each wearer which style suits him and what charm to put on it. “All hat and no horse,” has become a common phrase in recent decades, referring to the fact that there are many people throughout traditional cowboy territory who like the idea of playing cowboy but have no cattle or horses to account for, in effect all talk, but lacking action.