The cowboy hat is one of the foremost emblems of American culture, representing the culture of the American South, West, and Southwest. The image of the hat evokes thoughts of farming, ranching, and paving one’s own way on a new frontier. Really, the cowboy hat is an icon encapsulating the American spirit itself!
So, how did this unique fashion icon come to be? You’re about to find out. Stay tuned for a brief history of the cowboy hat, from its 13th-century-ancestors all the way to its trendy, 21st-century iterations. (Don’t worry, there won’t be a pop quiz after this history lesson.)
Hang onto your hat, because here we go!
The Earliest “Cowboy Hats”
The very earliest cowboy hat didn’t show up until the 1860s (we’ll get to that later), but we can trace the origin of the cowboy hat all the way back to the 13th century. Mongolian horseback riders are recorded wearing hats with a tall crown and wide brim to keep their heads insulated and faces and necks shielded from the sun.
Many cultures located in hot, sunny climates adopted similar wide-brimmed headwear, including Mexican culture with their sombrero. (Fun fact: sombrero is simply the word for “hat” in Spanish!) It’s thought that early Texan cowboys adopted the style of the Mexican vaqueros’ sombrero or Spanish poblano in creating the American cowboy hat.
The Birth of The American Cowboy Hat
When European settlers first started moving into the American West in the 1800s, they had no standard hat. They wore a range of headwear, from top hats, to bonnets, to sailors caps, to makeshift coonskin caps, and many more. Originally, bowler hats were one of the most common hats worn by men in the 1800s. One could guess that these short-brimmed hats didn’t serve to protect them from the blaring rays in places like Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
Enter the cowboy hat we all know and love. As mentioned above, it’s thought that American pioneers were inspired to create the cowboy hat by the Mexican vaqueros’ sombrero. John Batterson Stetson is credited with the invention of the American cowboy hat, and boy, does he have an interesting story!
John B. Stetson was born in 1830 in New Jersey to Stephen Stetson, a hatmaker. He worked for his father until he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and told he didn’t have long to live. At that point, he set out for the American West in pursuit of an adventure, fearing he wouldn’t have another chance. He recovered from the tuberculosis, and after he returned home to the East, he set out on another adventure: to design a hat that suited Westerners’ needs. On his trip, he’d seen ratty, flea-infested coonskin caps and bowler hats that failed to shield the wearer from the sun’s rays.
Calling on the hat-making skills he learned from his father, in 1865, Stetson designed a new hat style he called “Boss of the Plains.” He designed it to be durable (unlike the coonskin caps), waterproof (unlike the popular straw hats), lightweight, and fashionable. The original hats were made of fur-felt, complete with a sweatband to distinguish the front from the back, lining, and a chin strap. They were colored mainly in plain grey, black, brown, or white.
Stetson used beaver felt to strongly waterproof his hats. This gave the hats the reputation of being waterproof, leading to them often being used to carry water in a pinch. (Note: we don’t recommend using any hat to hold water if you want it to maintain its quality!) The “Boss of the Plains” hat gained popularity and quickly became recognized as a status symbol in the West. Eventually, these caps came to be known as “Stetsons,” after its creator, but you probably refer to it simply as a cowboy hat.
The Evolution of The Cowboy Hat
The Stetson was not what the average person thinks of when they think of a cowboy hat. Its brim and top were both round and flat. As the Stetson gained popularity, variations and customizations morphed it into the typical cowboy hat we think of today.
We think of a cowboy hat as having a rolled brim on the sides and an indent along the top. This style likely arose by accident over time and wear. Perhaps the indent on the top and curved brim made the hats easier to pick up, or perhaps it was just a change in style, the same way skinny jeans and bootcut jeans go in and out of fashion. Either way, the style and accouterments on one’s cowboy hat began to express where the wearer was from, or even the wearer’s individual style.
You may have heard cowboy hats referred to as “ten-gallon hats.” The origin of this term is not clear, but it has nothing to do with the capacity of the hat! The term most likely comes from the Spanish term tan galán, meaning “fine,” or the Spanish term galón, which refers to the braided trim accouterment on some hats. (Fun fact: ten-gallon hats can really only hold about three quarts, far from ten gallons!)
The cowboy hat gained a spot in the American consciousness in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with the rise of the Western genre in Hollywood. It likely all began with Buffalo Bill, a famous soldier, hunter, and showman, who wore custom Stetsons on his Wild West show, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. From there, the hat became a mainstay of rodeo competitors, Hollywood actors, entertainers, and even politicians to signify the “Wild West.”
The Modern Cowboy Hat
Though cowboy hats were traditionally worn by, well, cowboys and other men in the South and the West, today cowboy hats are worn by all kinds of people. They’ve been adapted for men and women and resized, reshaped, and redesigned for style and function. If you don’t believe us, check out our wide variety of women’s hats!
The cowboy hat was invented for practical purposes, whether to keep the sun out of your eyes and the rain off your head, or to serve as a bowl for drinking water or a fan on a hot day. Because of its multipurpose utility, it gained the status as a staple of American culture, symbolizing hard work and adventure.
We here at Willow Lane Hat Co. find the history of the cowboy hat fascinating, and we hope you did, too. We’re proud to keep the centuries-long tradition of this kind of headwear alive and well. If this inspired you to join in on this American tradition or upgrade your current hat, don’t hesitate to order your high-quality, stylish Willow Lane cowboy hat today! Click here to shop.