The Western cowboy hat is symbolic and recognized around the world as part of "cowboy" culture and lore. It is the defining piece of attire for farm and ranch workers in the western United States, Canada and northern Mexico, as well as for country & western singers and rodeo athletes.
Before the invention of the cowboy hat, cowpunchers of the plains wore castoffs of previous lives. Everything from formal top hats and derbies to leftover remnants of civil War headgear. Tams and sailor hats were even often worn by men moving westward.
The concept of a broad-brimmed hat with a high crown worn by a rider on horseback came primarily from the tradition of the Mexican vaquero. However, the cowboy hat is a by-product of many designs, including Mexican hats such as the sombrero, and various designs of wide-brimmed hats worn by farmers and plantation workers, as well as the design used by the U.S. Cavalry. The shape of a cowboy hat once depended very much on the region from which it originated. At one time a person could tell where a cowboy was from just by the crease in his hat.
In the early days, the cowboy hat was valued for being functional, with the wide brim protecting working cowboys from the sun and rain. It could be used to signal others, fan a campfire, or pull water out of a stream. Today, while the hats can still serve these purposes, most people wear them for aesthetic value as a part of Western lifestyle, and as a fashion statement. A cowboy hat even appears on the flag of Calgary, Alberta, where "white hat ceremonies" are held by the civic government to welcome visiting dignitaries, and is the traditional gift presented by the city's mayor to foreign guests.
John B. Stetson is credited with designing and marketing the first "cowboy" hat in the USA, which he called the "Boss of the Plains". With its high, creased crown and wide molded brim, it became the prototype and foundation for all other cowboy hat designs. Stetson hats or Stetsons, or also sometimes known simply as cowboy hats, refers to a brand name and not a type of hat. The John B. Stetson Company of St. Joseph, Missouri, founded by John B. Stetson (1830-1906), is the manufacturer of one of the more famous variants of the cowboy hat, the "Boss of the Plains", a felt hat with a tall crown and very wide brim.
Versions of Stetson's "Boss of the Plains" worn at the time.
There are several versions of the history associated with the invention of the Stetson hat. The first is the most widely held belief which states that in the 1860's Stetson created a rugged hat for himself made from thick beaver fur felt while panning for gold in Colorado. The second version is based on folklore, Stetson invented the hat while on a hunting trip by showing his companions how he could make cloth out of fur without weaving. Stetson made an unusually large hat from hides collected on the trip, and wore the hat for the remainder of the expedition. Although initially worn as a joke, Stetson soon grew fond of the hat for its ability to protect him from the elements. It had a wide brim for protection from the elements, a high crown to keep an insulating pocket of air on the head, and a waterproof lining so the hat could be used to carry water. It's likely that there's at least some truth to both versions that contributed in the creation of the Stetson hat known as the "Boss of the Plains".
Studies have shown however that in fact, there is evidence to show that the design of the "Stetson" hat was actually originally designed by Christy's Hats from Frampton Cotterell, Bristol, England. Bristol University lecturer John Moore, stated: "Few people know that the ten gallon hat was invented in Frampton Cotterell but it's well documented in the records of the hat makers who built and owned the Christy's Hat factory. J. B. Stetson fought a long patent case with Christy's - and lost. The result was that he had to pay a licence fee to market the famous Stetson hat". Stetson may have lost the patent case, but he won in the long run as the style of hat is known universally as a "Stetson", and Christy's role is nearly forgotten. Christy's famous hat factory in Park Lane, which once employed a quarter of Frampton Cotterell residents, is now a listed building and a spacious house. Christy's built their factory in 1812 in an area where hatting was already a major industry and their main business was trading with the West Indies, making large brimmed felt hats for slaves harvesting sugar cane in the rainy season.
The "Stetson" hat was first sold in Central City, Colorado in 1865 in a style called the "Boss of the Plains,". In 1869 Stetson returned to Philadelphia to found his hat company, which produced high quality hats for outdoor use. By 1886 Stetson's hat company was the largest in the world, and had mechanized the hat-making industry. The original Stetson hat sold for five dollars.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police Red Serge dress uniform includes a Stetson with a flat brim. The Stetson was first used unofficially by the North West Mounted Police in the late 1800's, in place of the traditional white pith helmet. The color for the RCMP Stetson is sometimes referred to as "Belgian Belly", it is a reddish buff, pastel like color of the underfur of the Belgian Hare. Although called a Stetson, the hat type or style was considered a campaign hat. In the Second Boer War, the flat brimmed Stetson also became the standard issue of the second Canadian Contingent, becoming recognized throughout the British Empire as a symbol of Canada. The Stetson hat became an official part of the uniform of the Royal North West Mounted Police, which later became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The campaign style hat was also adopted by the U.S. Army from 1911 to 1942. The campaign hat is still worn by U.S. Armed forces drill instructors. Later, the campaign hat also became known as the "Montana Peak", and was immensely popular with cowboys and also became the official hat worn by many forest rangers and state troopers as well, each having it's own unique distinctive creased crown with slight variants in the size of the brim and crown, and shade of color.
The modern cowboy hat comes in wide variety of shapes, styles, and colors, everything from traditional styles preferred by cowboys, to outrageous fashion statements, but Stetson's "Boss of the Plains" is still the foundation for most of the cowboy hats produced today.