Aug 28, 2023
A glimpse into the history of the cowboy hat
CHEYENNE — Wyoming is no stranger to the cowboy hat, as it seems every corner of the city is covered with them when Cheyenne Frontier Days rolls around. Countless vendors and downtown businesses sell
CHEYENNE — Wyoming is no stranger to the cowboy hat, as it seems every corner of the city is covered with them when Cheyenne Frontier Days rolls around.
Countless vendors and downtown businesses sell them to visitors looking to fit in, and ranchers and cowboys come into town with their worn and weathered hats already perfectly melded to their heads. It is a commonality between the new and the old, tying every person to at least one part of Western heritage.
But the fashion staple can be traced back to a time much earlier than when the rodeo made its mark on Cheyenne, and much farther south.
Michael Grauer is the curator of Cowboy Collections and Western Art at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. He told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle that the inspiration for the cowboy hat known across the U.S. stemmed from Mexican vaqueros. They were considered expert horsemen who herded cattle and were known for the skills with their lasso, and a large hat was necessary to protect them from the elements hundreds of years ago.
Their all-leather hats were the standard in Mexico in the early 1500s.
“They were very low-crowned, white-brimmed, all leather, and part of that is because the first vaqueros were at the lower rung of the Spanish caste system,” he said. “They were obliged to wear leather clothing, partly for protection from the work that they did on the back of the horse, but also to identify them as workers with cattle.”
He said as ranching cattle spread from Mexico north to Texas by 1720, and to California by the 1760s, the cowboy hat started to evolve into woven hats from straw or palm to keep heads cooler. The crown on the hat stayed low until designers figured out that if it was taller, it allowed for better airflow.
This is why a cone shape can be found in the 18th century in northern Mexico, Texas and southern California. But it was just a matter of time before it changed again with the times.
Wool felt hats were introduced to Mexico by the 19th century, and gave way to a kind of dress hat that was more durable than straw or palm and better during the winter. Differentiation between the summer and winter months became the norm, and then came the creation that famous hat manufacturer John B. Stetson would deem the “Boss of the Plains” hat in 1865.
It was a universal, uncreased, broad-brimmed and low-crown hat, very much resembling the original hat worn by vaqueros in the 16th century.
“But, eventually, that personality of a cowboy or a driver or buckaroo created different kinds of creases, which most of those guys did on their own,” he said. “But John B. Stetson, being a clever marketer, started out selling different kinds of creases for different kinds of potential customers, and putting out trade catalogs. Then, of course, other hatters got involved, too.”
Education Solutions for Families wrote about the modern-day American cowboy hat and brought the legend to life. It is said that Stetson’s invention of the cowboy hat started as a joke after a hunting trip, where he amused fellow hunters by making a cloth from the fur of animals they captured.
“By dipping the fur in boiling water and kneading it with his hands, he created a sort of smooth, soft felt, much like the material that most cowboy hats are still made of today,” according to the education organization. “When Stetson finished making his fur felt, he made a very large hat with it, which he wore for the remainder of the trip as a joke. He soon realized, though, how well the hat protected him from the rain and harsh sun.
“He began to think about marketing his newly invented accessory, and the cowboy hat was born.”
Grauer said almost immediately the Stetson hat established itself permanently in American culture, as well as the ideals of a cowboy.
“A man on horseback suddenly changes his own geography,” he said. “And a man on horseback or a person on horseback symbolizes a great amount of freedom and liberty.
“That became a symbol. And the cowboy hat is the most recognized symbol worldwide of anything in the world ever. And the wearer of the hat is immediately recognized as someone who could be a cowboy, and that carries all those beliefs about a cowboy with it.”
He said he still believes this holds weight, and he considers it to never be more important than it is today. He said the symbol of liberty is revered, and there are some who even fear what the cowboy represents.
The Western curator encouraged others to wear the cowboy hat proudly, because everyone wants to be one in their heart.
“Keep wearing those hats. Keep wearing those creases,” he said. “But remember the history, as well. Remember that evolution, because we must remember our history. It’s just absolutely vital.”
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Jasmine Hall is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. She can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 307-633-3167. Follow her on Twitter @jasminerhphotos and on Instagram @jhrose25.Jasmine Hall