Oct 10, 2023

Tall Hat, Deep Roots

The brilliant evolution of the world's first article of clothing

by Shilo Urban

October 1, 2022

12:00 AM

Stetson's Boss of the Plains

Both beloved and beaten-up, practical yet iconic, the cowboy hat symbolizes the freedom and adventuresome spirit of the American West — and especially Texas (and even more especially, Fort Worth). More so than cowboy boots or even the horse, the hat's instantly recognizable silhouette goes beyond style to convey a moral code and way of life. This common Western accessory has evolved in fits and starts, shaped by horse-riding cultures throughout history to become the wide-brimmed hat with a high crown that we know today. The Texas horseman rides not alone but alongside Mexican vaqueros, Mongolian warriors, and ancient Greek cavalrymen back into the wild and wooly mists of prehistoric time … and to the dawn of the cowboy hat.

When primitive humans crawled out of their caves, the first article of clothing they invented was most likely the hat, historians say. A large leaf, perhaps, or a stretch of animal hide served as a mobile extension of their cave's roof, sheltering the face's vital sensory organs from outdoor elements. Our earliest depiction of a headpiece may reside on the Venus of Willendorf, a bulbous fertility figurine carved 30,000 years ago near modern Vienna, Austria. The hunter-gatherer who crafted the totem topped her head with either braids or a close-fitting cap — it's up for debate.

Not up for debate: The world's original horsemen were the Indo-Europeans, who domesticated the animal 6,000 years ago on the grassy steppes north of the Black Sea. A society of warrior-poets, they had herds of cattle and sheep, horse-drawn wagons, and (we think) warm wool hats. They certainly made wool felt, which entails pressing and matting the fibers together into a dense fabric (no weaving required). But it was their innovation of horseback travel that spread their culture far and wide; today, almost half the global population speaks a language derived from Indo-European. Their word for wool felt, hwol, has relatives in numerous daughter languages, from Sanskrit to Hittite to Welsh and, of course, in the English wool.

Felted hats had arrived, but what about the brim? Credit for the first known brimmed hat goes to the endlessly inventive ancient Greeks. Called the petasos, it paired a stiff brim with a low crown and chin strap. The messenger god Hermes (Mercury to the Romans) sported a petasos with wings on both sides, as befitted his fleet-footed nature. The patron of herdsmen and shepherds (and a rascally sort himself), Hermes was the overlord of livestock and trails, the same arena that American cowboys would inhabit centuries later. But the god's sordid past as a cattle rustler (as a one-day-old baby, he stole 50 cows from Apollo) would win him no friends on the Texas range.

No wings decorated the petasos of the average Greek. It was a simple hat of wool, leather, or straw that was commonly worn by people in the countryside, including hunters and farmers. Fancy folks and philosophers in the big cities preferred to keep their heads bare. The hat's utility was noticed by the Athenian cavalry, who adopted a metal version of the petasos as their headgear, perhaps the long-lost cousin of the doughboy helmet worn by American soldiers in World War I.

Long before the Allies and Central Powers ravaged the European countryside, however, another army appeared on the horizon: the Mongols. Genghis Khan and his fearsome hordes on horseback conquered the largest contiguous land empire in history, which stretched from Poland to the Pacific Ocean in the 13th century. Much of this terrain was blisteringly cold and windy in the winter, prompting another innovation: the high crown. The Mongols’ hats had tall, conical crowns for extra insulation along with ear flaps and an upturned brim at the front.

Did this pointed crown arrive in Europe with the Mongols, traveling to Spain and the New World to become the Mexican sombrero? Scholars are divided. Maybe it did, or maybe the sombrero was invented anew by mestizo cowboys in Central Mexico. Translated from Spanish as "shadower," the word sombrero is older than the Mexican headpiece, and several variants exist in southern Spain, such as the sombrero de catite. In any case, the sombrero's expansive size shadowed the shoulders as well as the head and neck. Its shade was desperately needed by vaqueros working in the fierce Mexican sun, many of whom matriculated north and taught skills to a new breed of horseman: the American cowboy.

If you could travel back in time to the opening of the Chisholm Trail, you’d probably see a few "sombreros" — but you wouldn't see any cowboy hats. Cowboys and other frontiersmen wore a hodgepodge of headwear, including flat wool caps, old Civil War hats, captain-style caps, slouch hats, coonskins, and even the odd silk stovepipe. Many Westerners were newly arrived immigrants who just wore whatever they’d brought on the boat. Most of all, you’d see derbies.

Known as bowler hats in Britain, these hard felt hats have low, bowl-shaped crowns and narrow brims with pencil curls (think Charlie Chaplin and René Magritte). Bowlers were invented in 1850 as a riding hat for an English game warden who was tired of tree branches doffing and damaging his top hat as he scoured the landscape for poachers. The stiff and durable style was destined to become the century's trendiest headgear and an emblem of the Victorian era. From rich bankers to working schleps, every social class wore the bowler — a modern hat for the modern man (and a few bold women) in a quickly changing world.

Its popularity extended deep into America, where it was renamed the derby. Called "the hat that won the West" by journalist Lucian Beebe, the derby proliferated across the ranches and railyards of the Great Plains. Whether you were driving a herd or poking your head out of a train window, the close-fitting hat wouldn't blow off. Lawmen and outlaws alike wore derbies, including Bat Masterson, Black Bart, and Marion Hedgepeth (aka the Derby Kid). Derbies don the heads of Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and everyone else in the notorious "Fort Worth Five" photograph, which was snapped at John Swartz's studio (across the street from today's Grace restaurant) in 1900. Pinkertons reprinted the image in the gang's wanted posters, hats and all.

The Famous Fort Worth Five, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid among them, wearing the then-popular derby.

Birth of a Legend

While it has many antecedents, the cowboy hat can be traced back to one man: John B. Stetson. His very name is synonymous with the design. Wikipedia's "list of hat styles" page includes 134 entries from ascot to zucchetto, and you won't find cowboy hat among them — but you will find Stetson.

Born in 1830 to a New Jersey family of hatmakers, John was the seventh of a dozen children. He learned the skills of making felt and constructing hats alongside his brothers, planning to follow in the family business. Then plans changed. At age 24, Stetson was diagnosed with tuberculosis and not given long to live. He headed to the frontier on the advice of his doctor, hoping the dry air would provide a miracle cure (or at least a little adventure before his days were done).

He signed up for a hunting expedition to Pikes Peak from the trading post of St. Joseph, Missouri, located on the state's western border. The 600-mile journey to the Rocky Mountains traverses some of the flattest, emptiest, most monotonous countryside in America (still to this day): Kansas and eastern Colorado. The hunting party found no trees, no shade, and no protection from the rolling rainstorms and blazing sun. Their untanned animal skin hats were no match for the climate and rotted quickly. But one of the guide's straw sombreros sparked an idea for Stetson. He applied his felt-making skills to waterproof beaver pelts, which they had in abundance, and fashioned an unusually wide and tall hat. Like many brilliant inventions, his big hat was initially laughed at by his friends. But they soon came to see its appeal, especially after a passing wagon driver traded a $5 gold piece for it (worth about $90 today).

Stetson had sold his first hat. Even better, his health had returned. He headed back east for a fresh start in Philadelphia in the mid-1860s and opened his own hat business. His first designs mimicked contemporary European styles made of rabbit felt, but his profits barely covered the cost of supplies. When a fur company extended Stetson a week of credit when he was unable to pay, he took it as a sign from God: It was time to start making his Pikes Peak hat. He called it the Boss of the Plains.

Lightweight, durable, and waterproof, the beaver-felt Boss of the Plains was designed with the Western working man in mind. It had a broad, flat brim and a high crown with rounded corners, plus an adjustable hat band for sizing. Inside, Stetson added a sweatband and liner plus a little bow to indicate the back. Prices ranged from $5 for basic models to $30 for the finest beaver fur. Early adopters included the Texas Rangers and General George Custer, who went down in just such a hat during his infamous Last Stand in 1876. For the general public, however, the Boss of the Plains wouldn't really catch on until the mid-1880s. By the turn of the century — it was everywhere.

Cowboys loved the versatile hat, which offered much more than warmth and protection. It was also a cattle prod, a bellows, a drinking vessel, a storage compartment, a fly swatter, and a sleep mask for fireside shut-eye. You could wave the hat to catch the attention of a fellow rider across the range or tilt its brim to shield your face from blowing dust. Beaver felt was lighter than leather, maintained its shape better than straw, and withstood the harsh climate better than rabbit fur. It soon became an indispensable part of the cowboy's gear.

The only "problem" with the Boss of the Plains stemmed from its rough-and-tumble environment. Beaten up on the trail, its brim gradually began to curl up while its open crown collected creases and dents. But cowboys preferred this distressed look and started curling and creasing their hats on purpose. Much like ripping holes in brand-new jeans today, it was a way to express one's individuality and rugged, been-there-done-that character. Some geographic areas had their own unique indentations, like flat crowns in Nevada (now called the telescope or gambler crease). Stetson caught on and began selling new models that already had curves and creases; the Boss of the Plains was slowly morphing into the cowboy hat.

In addition to its functionality, the hat owed its increasing appeal to its most famous fan: William Frederick Cody, known across the planet as Buffalo Bill. The celebrated hunter, soldier, and Pony Express rider dramatized his frontier stories in his hugely successful vaudeville show, "Buffalo Bill's Wild West," which ran from 1883 to 1913. Luminaries like Annie Oakley, "Wild Bill" Hickok, Calamity Jane, Geronimo, and Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders appeared on stage with Buffalo Bill, ever the consummate showman. Audiences turned up in droves to watch the sharpshooting, rodeo stunts, and "historical" reenactments of Indian raids and stagecoach robberies. They went home with romanticized ideas of the American West, a wide-open landscape of opportunity and adventure and heroism — and the hero always wore a cowboy hat. A big one. Crowns grew from 3 inches to 7 inches during the early decades of the 1900s, the era when hatmakers like Resistol and American Hat Company opened their doors. Buffalo Bill's 10-gallon hat, custom designed by Stetson, reflected this upward trend.

"Suddenly that hat became very popular," says Rodger Chieffalo, who owns Chieffalo Americana boutique on Camp Bowie Boulevard with his wife, Jackie. Chieffalo is Fort Worth's unofficial cowboy hat historian, a cowboy hat whisperer if you will, who transforms vintage pieces into luxe new accessories while respecting their soul and character. The couple specializes in Amon Carter-style hats, which were born one fateful day in 1920 on the streets of New York City. Chorus: New York City?!

Amon Carter (Fort Worth's preeminent civic booster) was strolling along in Manhattan wearing his three-piece suit, cowboy boots, and 10-gallon hat — and he was mistaken for a vaudeville performer. "He took that as a personal insult," says Chieffalo. Carter returned to Fort Worth and sat down with Mr. Peters of Peters Brothers Hats to create a different look. Carter's new hat had the dimensions of an East Coast fedora, a 3-inch brim with a 5-inch to 6-inch crown, but it was made with beaver fur. Eastern hats used rabbit felt because it could be dyed multiple colors, unlike the waterproof (and dye-repellant) beaver felt.

"But out West here, hats had a different use," explains Chieffalo. "They weren't a fashionable thing; they were a functional thing." Carter also wanted a thinner hat band and a different crease, something distinctively Fort Worth. He chose the same design that local men were wearing, a sleek, deep indentation in the middle of the crown with two creases on the side. "By Amon doing that, his hat became so popular in that style that they started calling it the Fort Worth crease."

Carter named his new creation the Shady Oak. "He changed the hat business," says Chieffalo. "He made a hat that was urban for the Western states. Suddenly, men that lived in cities all up and down the Midwest, from Chicago to San Antonio, they had their own hat style. If you were in a city in the West, you had one of those hats." Hat shops all over began making the design and giving it their own name: the Open Road, the San Antonio, the Bankers Special, the Cattle Buyer. By the 1940s, most ranch owners were wearing this "cowboy fedora," not only when they traveled to the city but back on the ranch as well. Their cowhands, however, still wore the big, wide-brimmed hats — they were "all hat and no cattle."

Crystal Wise

Roger Chieffalo

Then came Hollywood. The cowboy hat reached new heights in the late 1940s and ’50s during the Golden Age of the Western genre. Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and John Wayne swaggered across the screen in pristine, meticulously creased cowboy hats, standardizing the style recognized worldwide today. Branded into the public imagination by the lights of the silver screen, the cowboy hat was now enshrined as an icon of the American frontier in humanity's collective consciousness.

Straw cowboy hats were born in this post-war era, when a new lacquer was invented that stiffened the material so it could hold its creases and shapes. Those in hot climates rejoiced, for a hat was still an indispensable accessory for respectable men and women alike. That all changed in 1961 when John F. Kennedy gave his inauguration speech with a bare head. "People on the East Coast kind of abandoned hats," explains Chieffalo, "but cowboys didn't. They couldn't. Because it's a functional piece of gear, and everywhere else it's just a fashion item."

Cowboy hats would return to mainstream fashion with an exuberant peak during the "Urban Cowboy" craze of the late 1970s and early ’80s. John Travolta went lookin’ for love in all the wrong places (in his Stetson of course) and country music ruled the radio. Everyone from Massachusetts to Malibu started listening to Kenny Rogers, Anne Murray, and the Charlie Daniels Band. The Fort Worth crease was renamed the cattleman's crease, and cowboy hat factories started operating 24/7 to meet the demand.

A new resurgence of cowboy hat chic is underway at the current moment, fueled by the success of the television series "Yellowstone" (whose prequel, "1883," was partially filmed in Fort Worth). More sophisticated than the purple rhinestones and peacock feathers of the 1980s, today's look is all about authenticity: local and regional artisans, handmade items, and one-of-a-kind vintage finds (although if purple peacock feathers are your thing, hey — go for it).

Whether felted or straw, sleek for the city or dusty from the ranch, the cowboy hat is eternally linked to the mythic spirit of the American West. It evokes the value system required to survive in the rugged frontier landscape: courage and character, hard work, and self-reliance. As a utilitarian accessory, it speaks to the functionality of humankind's earliest headwear — yet it retains a powerful hold on the modern imagination. The cowboy hat's popularity may wax and wane, but the freedom and independence it represents will resonate through history forever.

Shilo Urban is a freelance writer with an incurable case of wanderlust. She loves writing about culture and lives for adventures in Fort Worth and far beyond. Her current obsessions include Tibet, tap dancing, Kant, and mango HI-Chew candy.

October 1, 2022

12:00 AM

Both beloved and beaten-up, practical yet iconic, the cowboy hat symbolizes the freedom and adventuresome spirit of the American West — and especially Texas (and even more especially, Fort Worth). Birth of a Legend