The Western Hat

Theresa McCaffrey


A staple in any western rider’s wardrobe is a good western hat. Choose it well and wear it with pride.


The western hat is an unmistakable symbol of western culture. An obligatory part of the western rider’s formal attire, hats should be chosen carefully, maintained properly and worn with pride.

The western hat in its modern guise was first introduced by John Batterson Stetson in 1865. The story goes that he moved west for health reasons and, during a hunting trip, discovered a way of treating animal furs with boiling water to make a length of felt cloth without any weaving. He fashioned a hat from this material which he found to be water resistant, light weight and breathable and went on to design and market ‘The Boss of the Plains’ to cowboys. Previously westerners wore many styles of hats including top hats, derbies, sailor hats and bowlers. Many cowboys wore generic wide brimmed, high crowned hats for practical reasons to keep the sun and weather off before Stetson introduced his model but credit is generally given to him for the design.

The most desirable felt for modern cowboys hats is undoubtedly beaver and a 100% beaver fur hat is an expensive item. Beaver has proven to be hard wearing, highly water resistant and keeps its shape well. Due to the expense of pure beaver, many manufacturers offer a blend of fur, very often European hare, and will signify the ‘quality’ of the hat (and thus the percentage of beaver fur used) using an X system. Care must be taken when buying a hat as very often the X number used in marketing is not the percentage of beaver fur in the mix. Some 100X hats actually have no beaver fur in them which is very misleading.

Felt hats are highly customisable when steamed. Brims and center creases can be modified to suit an individual and are governed by the fashions of particular western spheres. Perhaps the most popular crease for all around wear is the Cattleman's crease – a crease right down the center of the crown with a dent on each side. Returning in popularity is the Carlsbad crease, now sometimes called a ‘Gus crease’ after a character in Lonesome Dove. It maintains a high crown at the back with the crease sloping steeply toward the front. The Rodeo crease, the Bull Rider's crease, the Quarter Horse crease, and the Tycoon (with a pinched front) are also seen today.

Inside the cowboy hat is a memorial bow to past hatters, who developed brain damage from treating felt with toxic mercury. The term ‘mad as a hatter’ derived from the sad misunderstanding that the violent muscle spasms that many hatters developed were due to the mercury and not their mental state. The bow on the inside at the rear of western hats is meant to resemble a skull and crossbones and has remained a symbol of the fate of many early hatters to this day.

Some western riders prefer the lightweight, and cooler straw hat. A wide variety of natural and synthetic materials are used to make straws, which give maximum comfort and pleasing style. Some of the better known soft straws are open-weave Panama, New braids, Hanoki, Hemp, Peanit, Leghorn, Baku, Bangkok, and Madagascar. Straws cannot be reshaped like a felt hat but offer a good alternative for summer time showing.



Rhinestone Clothing is the UK distributor for Greeley Hat Works, hatters to World Champion western riders. Visit www.greeleyhatworks.com to check out the whole collection.