Cowboys hats are probably the most iconic of all American hats … being recognizable as the defining feature of the American cowboy. Worn by characters as wide ranging as Ronald Reagan and Billy the Kid, most would assume it was a purely American article. Yet, the history of the wide-brimmed hat is much, much older. The earliest known use of a wide-brimmed and high-crowned hat was by Mongolian horsemen during the 13th century. After that, the style of hat moved across Europe and likely crossed the Atlantic with the Spanish. A similar style of hat was popular with Mexican cowboys (its direct descendant is the sombero) and it was through this connection that the style likely became popular in the American West.
Originally, those moving west had no actual ‘official’ headgear, they wore whatever they had worn back East or in Europe … top hats, derbies, Civil War kepis, sailor hats, etc. The invention of the modern cowboy hat can be traced to John B. Stetson. In 1865, he started the Stetson Hat Company and soon produced his first hat, the “Boss of the Plains”.
In reality, this hat was not even his own. It was a copy of a design created by an English company, Christy’s Hats of Bristol, and after a lengthy court battle, Stetson was required to pay a licensing fee to them to produce the “Boss of the Plains”. Quickly after the ‘invention’ of the hat, it became extremely popular and Stetson was hard-pressed to keep up with the rising demand. Yet, the hat still did not symbolize the West.
It was only during the popularization of the myth of the Wild West, that it was made the hat that won the West. Sported by entertainers such as Buffalo Bill Cody, early silent film stars like William S. Hart, and as part of the uniform of the Texas Rangers, the hat’s fame grew to the point where they are the only hat that real cowboys wear! They are still a key part of the working cowboys attire, both on and off the horse. Additionally, they are regularly seen on the street, on the stage, and anywhere else Western wear can be found.
Today, the Stetson factory in Texas makes hundreds of styles and colors but they are still known primarily for their cowboy hats. Additionally, they are still one of the world’s premier hat manufacturers. So, just as it was in the late 19th century, if you want a real cowboy hat, buy a Stetson!