The cowboy hat nowadays is an instantly recognisable piece of apparel. High-crowned and wide-brimmed, it is associated with Old West lore and worn by country-western singers and people involved with rodeos as well as anyone who does ranching work or likes to look as if they did. But as with so many things associated with the Old West, the reality is both more complex and more interesting.

The bowler hat was the original cowboy hat
The bowler hat was the hat that conquered the West

What we think of as a cowboy hat is not what they wore in the Old West. Photos of those times show a variety of styles of hat, none of which is what we have come to expect. The bowler hat, rather than the cowboy hat, was called ‘the hat that won the West’. The real ancestor of the cowboy hat was the one made by Stetson in the late 1800s called ‘The boss of the plains’. It actually looked more like a modern Amish hat, having a straight-sided crown with rounded corners and a flat brim. In fact it was really a modified sombrero. This was followed by the front-creased Carlsbad. The curling of the brim and the side creases in the crown came later, and the different types then became specific to the rancher, bull rider, buckaroo, etc.

Like all hats worn while working, the cowboy hat served a purpose. The brim gave shade from the sun and the space in the crown above the top of the wearer’s head acted as insulation, conserving heat in the winter and providing a cool buffer in the summer. Naturally it was also a form of decoration, like a brightly-coloured bandanna or tooled leather boots, and something to doff to ladies.

A cowboy’s hat was sometimes called a ‘ten-gallon hat’. While early advertising of Stetson hats showed a cowboy giving his horse a drink out of his hat, thus proving that the weave was tight enough to hold water, there is no way that its capacity was ten gallons. There are plenty of theories as to where the name came from – possibly from the Spanish ‘tan galán’ which means ‘so handsome’.

The modern Stetson
The modern Stetson

As an important item donned for trials like the rodeo, there were and still are numerous superstitions surrounding the cowboy’s hat. It is supposed to be immense bad luck to set it on a bed, and this ill fortune can only be undone by some ritual which varies according to region. The hat can variously be spat into, thrown to the ground, or stomped on.

If you knock a cowboy’s hat onto the ground, it is an indication that you are spoiling for a fight. And you should neither lend your own hat nor borrow someone else’s, unless you are in dire straits. However if a woman puts on a man’s hat, it suggests that she is more than a little interested in him and plans on taking other things off besides the hat.

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