All Hail the Cowboy Hat!

From the Boss of The Plains to The Gus

A group of cowboys readying for a day’s work paused long enough in front of their chuck wagon, circa 1880s, for a photographer to capture them in all their tack and hat styles, including a few of Stetson’s bestselling Boss of the Plains.
All Images Courtesy True West Archives Unless Otherwise Noted

 

“A fine hat fits like a good friend.” —Charles M. Russell

 

In 1989, veteran actors Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones costarred in the epic CBS Western miniseries Lonesome Dove. Adapted from Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, the production featured Duvall and Jones playing best friends, two former Texas Rangers determined to drive a herd of cattle from the Rio Grande to Montana. Their characters, Capt. Augustus “Gus” McCrae and Capt. Woodrow F. Call, captured the imaginations of millions across the globe, and Lonesome Dove became a sensation and inspired a renewed interest in the Old West, including the iconic Western symbol invented by John B. Stetson, the cowboy hat. Lonesome Dove’s producer, the late Bill Wittliff, turned to his hatmaker friend Manny Gammage of Texas Hatters to make hats for Jones and Duvall. Jones wore a classic black Boss of the Plains-style hat nicknamed the Captain Call, customized with a taller crown and a dip in the front and back, while Duvall sported a high-crowned Montana crease cowboy hat nicknamed the Gus, a hat that Gammage is credited with designing for the award-winning actor. Gammage also created custom hats for Lonesome Dove costars Angelica Huston and the late Robert Urich. Without a doubt, the custom hat work and attention to historic details added authenticity that led to a renaissance in classic cowboy hatmaking across the United States.

Robert Duvall (left) and Tommy Lee Jones (right) in their roles as Capt. Gus McCrae and Capt. Woodrow F. Call in Lonesome Dove wore hats created by Manny Gammage of Texas Hatters in Lockhart, Texas. Customers can order replicas for their own wearing pleasure. Courtesy CBS Television

As Lynda Sánchez notes in her feature on John B. Stetson and the origin of the cowboy hat, “the legend of the Stetson goes beyond chivalry and the history of the Old West.” Fortunately for us in 2021, the legend of the cowboy hat is not only alive and well, but has been documented by its proud owners for more than 150 years as an icon of America. In honor of the cowboy hat, the editors of True West take a look back at its highs and lows, from the Boss of the Plains to the Gus, and celebrate the hat—and the hatmakers—still winning the hearts and minds of wearers around the world.

 

Big Hats, Big Ranches, Big Stars

In 1865, John B. Stetson’s hat factory in Philadelphia began making and shipping hats to all corners of the country. At the height of Stetson’s success, his factory was making over 3.3 million hats a year. As the cowboy hat grew in popularity across North America in the 19th and early 20th century, hatmakers began opening felt and straw hat factories and shops across the West for eager customers. Quickly, the number of styles and shapes of cowboy hats exploded and changed, reflected by the rugged individualism of the cowboys themselves.

The working men of the Western ranges needed hats that could endure the harsh conditions of their work, and soon tall crowns and wide brims grew out of necessity to help shade, cool and warm the wearer of the hat. The Mexican sombrero with its tall sugar loaf crown influenced hatmakers and wearers across the West, as did the more conservative bowler and fedora styles of the East. Cowboys shaped their hats to fit their personalities and considered their hats among their most valuable and treasured possessions in their daily work and life. In the late 19th and early 20th century, famous cowboy hat wearers including Buffalo Bill Cody, Pawnee Bill, Annie Oakley and Theodore Roosevelt spread the popularity of the cowboy hat around the world.

In the Roaring Twenties, with the rise of Western movies, radio shows, dime novels, dude ranches and Western tourism, the cowboy hat and Western wear became a fixture in American fashion. Early movie stars Tom Mix, William S. Hart, Bob Steele, Hoot Gibson and Hopalong Cassidy wore tall-crowned hats, a style that remained popular among working cowboys, too, through the 1940s. But, after World War II, the cowboy hat suddenly changed with the return of millions of veterans, and the influence of the fedora, resulting in a shortened crown and brim.

Cowboy Henry Tunis’s hat, with its high crown and shape, shows the influence of the Mexican sombrero style.

 

White-eye Anderson and Yankee Judd, Leadville, Colorado, sport the high-crowned, broad-brimmed cowboy hats popular in the 1880s.

 

Tom Mix, shown here with his wonder horse Tony, may be the all-time most famous wearer of a Stetson hat. His signature high-crowned, broad-brimmed hat is named the “Tom Mix.”

 

The working Kansas drovers who joined the famous Dodge City Cowboy Band sported their own hats and in doing so were a walking showcase for the many different popular styles of crowns, brims and creases of the 1880s. Courtesy Library of Congress

 

In arguably one of the most recognizable photos of famous Old West personalities, the Dodge City Peace Commission members wore a variety of hats, including a couple of Stetson’s Boss of the Plains.

 

A cowgirl and cowboy were all duded-up in their finest for a Western parade in the once wicked cattle town of Newton, Kansas. Bain News Agency, Courtesy Library of Congress

 

Two young 1870s Texas cowboys wear a straw sombrero and a felt bowler, reflecting the personalities of the wearers 150 years ago, as the various styles do today. Courtesy DeGolyer Library, SMU

 

An 1870s-80s working cowboy posed in his modified Stetson Boss of the Plains.

 

Two unknown cowboys, circa 1870s-80s, posed with their best (and maybe only) hats, makers unknown. Note the taller crown and dent or pinch on the hat worn by the cowboy on the right. Courtesy National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum

 

Cowboy Heroes, Rodeo Stars and Buckaroos

In the 1950s and early 1960s, the cowboy was everywhere in America. From ranches to rodeos, from television to drive-in movie theaters, the cowboy was king. But the hat almost universally had transformed from the tall, high-crowned style worn for decades, to a shorter, trimmer style. Presidents Truman and Johnson wore Stetson’s Open Road, a short-crowned, short-brimmed hat, while movie and TV stars Randolph Scott, Glenn Ford, Steve McQueen and Michael Landon wore smaller hats than their predecessors. Typically, sidekicks and comics would be the only ones sporting high-crowned cowboy hats on screen, while out West on ranches and farms in the 1950s, the style definitely reflected a more conservative era in hats. 

After President John F. Kennedy’s decision to go hatless at his January 1961 inauguration, men’s fashion across the U.S. followed suit, and men’s hats—and hat sales—have never been the same. From the 1960s to the present, cowboy hat styles, sizes and shapes, have been dictated much more by the men and women who wear them for work and sport, giving way to distinct regional styles across the West. 

In popular culture, the cowboy hat remains an iconic symbol of the West, from the movies and television, country-western and country rock music, to rodeo and even the Olympics, where more than once the cowboy hat was the official hat of the American and Canadian teams. Now, today fashion has re-embraced hats as a daily accessory for men and women, spurring a rise of hat shops and custom cowboy hatmakers across the West.

 

Ninety-six Ranch buckaroo Myron Smart, circa 1980s, wears a high-crowned and broad-brimmed hat to protect him from the harsh weather conditions of cowboying in the desert and mountain environment of Nevada’s Great Basin. Courtesy Library of Congress

 

New Mexico rodeo cowboys tacked up in their best hats for a rodeo in Quemado, circa 1940. Russell Lee, Courtesy NYPL Digital Collections

 

A cowboy works on a cattle ranch near Spur, Texas, circa 1940. His hat’s pinched crown and taco-style brim were popular in the region and era. Russell Lee, Courtesy NYPL Digital Collection

 

In 1939, a group of men from the Pie Town, New Mexico, area came dressed up in their finest for a picnic. The variety of cowboy hat styles show individuality in their pinches, colors, brims and crowns. Courtesy Library of Congress

 

The 1950s Stetson Hat advertisement reflected the changing hat styles, especially the shortened crowns and shorter brims of the 1950s. Courtesy Hatco

 

Own a Piece of History…and Make it Your Own

From the first John B. Stetson Boss of the Plains in 1869 to the artisan-shaped, handmade custom cowboy hat of 2021, one fact has held true: every proud owner of a new cowboy hat makes it their own. They shape it, dent it, add a hatband, a ribbon, a stampede string, even a pin or feather. Many personalized hats are considered a wearer’s most valuable possession, reflecting his or her own distinctive style.

Whether a high or short crown, large or small brim, beaver or straw, buckaroo or rancher, cattleman or gambler, full taco or pencil roll, open crown or pinch front, hatmakers across the West are ready to make your custom hat to fit your style, budget, work and fashion. 

The following list represents just a sampling of Western hatmakers in the business of making cowboy hat dreams come true. We recommend you check them out online and in person. Call and make an appointment today to have the custom hat you’ve wanted for years made today. You won’t regret it—and soon you will be wearing your own one-of-a-kind piece of history.

Golden Gate Western Wear, home of Knudsen Hat Company, has a broad selection of custom felt and straw cowboy hats. Courtesy Knudsen Hat Company

 

Boss of the Plains by Stetson. Courtesy Hatco

 

 

RHS Hatco, Inc.

Garland, Texas

972-494-0511

Hat-Co.com

American Hat Company

Bowie, Texas

800-392-4197

AmericanHat.net

Bailey Hats Company

Fort Worth, Texas

855-384-7018

BaileyHats.com

Jaxonbilt Hat Co. Intl

Salmon, Idaho

208-756-6444

JaxonbiltHats.com

Jaxonbilt Hat Co. is well-known for its movie cowboy hat reproductions. Courtesy Jaxonbilt Hat Co.

 

A reproduction of the “Quigley” cowboy hat that Tom Selleck made popular in the 1990 film Quigley Down Under can be ordered from both Jaxonbilt Hat Co. and Knudsen Hat Co. Courtesy MGM

 

Knudsen Hat Co.

Richmond, California

510-232-3644

KnudsenHats.com

O’Farrell Hat Company

Santa Fe, New Mexico

505-989-9666

OFarrellHatCo.com

Bronco Sue Custom Hats

Tularosa, New Mexico

575-630-1912

BroncoSue.com

D Bar J Hat Company

Las Vegas, Nevada

702-740-4287

DBarJHat.com

Double H Hat Company

Derby, MT/Wickenburg, AZ

406-360-6979

DoubleHats.com

Greeley Hat Works

Greeley, Colorado

888-367-2428

GreelyHatWorks.com

Greeley Hat Works features a full line of cowboy hats created for Yellowstone, including the Beth Dutton, worn by Kelly Reilly. Courtesy Greeley Hat Works

 

Baldwin Hats

Sisters, Oregon

541-610-9978

BaldwinHats.com

Catalena Hatters

Bryan, Texas

979-822-4423

CatalenaHatters.com

Texas Jacks Wild West Outfitter

Fredericksburg, Texas

830-997-3213

TexasJacks.com

Tom Hirt Custom Hats

Penrose, Colorado

719-372-9399

HatsOfTheWest.com

Nathaniel’s Custom Hats

Georgetown, Texas

512-948-7524

NathanielsofColorado.com

Montana Peaks Hat Company

Pendleton, Oregon

541-215-1400

MontanaPeaks.net

Montana Mad Hatters

Twin Brides, Montana

406-684-5869

MontanaHats.com

Montecristi Custom Hat Works

Santa Fe, New Mexico

505-983-9598

MontecristiHats.com

Buckaroo Hatters

Covington, Tennessee

901-907-7436

BuckarooHatters.com

Atwood Hat Co.

Frankston, Texas

903-876-1933

AtwoodHats.com

Wild West Mercantile

Mesa, Arizona

480-218-1181

WWMerc.com

Manny Gammage’s Texas Hatters

Lockhart, Texas

512-398-4287

TexasHatters.com

Related Posts

  • Before we get to the Boy’s Club Rules, Lynda A. Sánchez, a third-generation rancher, weighs…

  • cowboy hat rule

    The right hat can make all the difference in a Western. Just think back to…

  • Eric H. Heisner’s, T.H. Elkman (Skyhorse Publishing, $22.99) gives insight into the life of Thomas…