A Cowboy's Crown
An endless variety of styles exist in the cowboy hat market. Select one to fit your personality and function with tips from today’s Western leaders, role models and professionals.
By KATIE FRANK
Like his thumbprint, a cowboy’s hat is unique. How it’s worn offers distinct clues about his character, regional background and occupation. Those purchasing their first cowboy hat may find the countless options overwhelming.
“The cowboy hat is the last chance for many people to be part of a great adventure,” says Shorty Koger, who owns and operates Shorty’s Caboy Hattery in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. “There is a magic moment when someone puts a cowboy hat on for the first time. I think it changes a person’s attitude.”
In the Western industry, it’s important to encourage attire that reflects tradition but promotes individuality. A booming hat market means endless available styles.
“When you take one straw hat, there are 14 million different options,” says Keith Mundee, president of American Hat Co. in Bowie, Texas. “Each hat can come with a 4-inch brim [or other brim sizes], with about 15 different crowns, and 15 or 16 different brim shapes. Then take all the color combinations and the different sizes and multiply that times all the options with a bound edge, and you take that times all the options that go inside the hatband. For the 56 different styles American Hat Company offers, that’s 784 million options.”
In other words, that’s a lot of hats. But wearing a hat is more than just fashion—it serves an important role in a horseman’s day-to-day routine, and is as essential as his saddle or boots.
“They were designed to protect from the elements,” Koger says. “Today, they still have that function, but they are also fashionable and are required for competition."
To narrow down the options, we’ve talked to a variety of people in the horse industry, from West Texas to California, whose occupations range from Western singer-songwriter to roughstock rider. They share tips about their own personal style and why they wear it, which can be useful when you walk into a hat shop.
To some, the mere thought of wearing a black felt hat in the blistering Texas sun is enough to induce sweating.
“Traditionally straws are worn after Easter when the weather starts getting warmer,” says Matthew Range, marketing director for Hatco, Inc. “Felts are worn after Labor Day as the weather cools down. However, it’s not unusual for a cowboy to wear a straw in November in Texas or a felt in Montana in April.”
But for every rule, there is someone who bucks it, and Rusty Rodgers is a prime example of someone who uses practicality to overrule tradition.
“I developed my style mainly out of functionality,” says Rodgers, the foreman at Wagon Wheel Ranch in Lometa, Texas.
He’s recognizable from any angle with his turned-up 5-inch brim. Dust settles in the creases, evidence of wear and hard work.
“I wear a black felt hat year-round,” he says. “I used to wear a straw hat in some months of the year, but after working in West Texas where the wind blows daily—it’s just a matter of how high—I found a felt hat to be easier to keep on.
“Besides protection from sun, wind, rain and brush, I think it is important for a ranch cowboy to look like a cowboy. Aside from being stylish, a hat is an essential tool in my everyday work. The hat keeps the sun out of my eyes and from blistering my head and face. It keeps me warm in the winter and cool in the summer. My hat has been known to turn a few thorns from mesquite trees while riding a colt or chasing a cow in the pasture.”
Hats are typically made of felt (beaver or rabbit fur), straw or wool. Straw hats are the lightest and are commonly worn in warmer months or climates because of the ventilation they offer, especially if they have open weaving at the top of the crown. Hat quality is based on a scale of X’s. Resistol’s X range goes from 5X to 100X (fur felt) and 6X to 200X (straw).
“The higher the X, the higher the beaver fur content,” says Range. “Every brand uses their own formula, so you should never compare one brand of X’s to another. X’s in straw denote the quality of the straw and the tightness of the weave."
With regular wear, straw hats typically last a year before needing to be replaced. Felts, on the other hand, seem to be more durable and can be refurbished.
After deciding what material you like, it’s time to find a hat that fits.
Fits Like a Glove
Her flat-brimmed hat is reminiscent of the Great Basin, and underneath it her long blonde hair cascades down her shoulders. When singer-songwriter Adrian “Buckaroogirl” Brannan steps into the spotlight to perform original songs about ranching, love and tradition, she must look the part.
“When I started performing at 14 years old, [I was] trying to figure out my look,” Brannan says. “I felt weird about wearing my hat on stage because I was not horseback. I thought, ‘Is it shaped right? Am I going to look dorky?’”