A Cowboy’s Crown

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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.

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.”

With so many hats to choose from, it can be overwhelming to select a pattern and style. Photo by Katie Frank.

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.

Material World
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.

Wagon Wheel Ranch foreman Rusty Rodgers has worn everything from Resistol to custom-made hats. No matter who makes the hat, though, it’s always a black felt. Photo by Juanita Rodgers.

“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?’”

Brannan, who resides in Southern California, spent the first couple of years performing while trying to hone her image.

“I juggled with styles and tried different things,” she says. “Hat shape is a very cultural and emotional thing. This is what people are going to see. This is their first impression of you.”

Adrian “Buckaroogirl” Brannan wears a custom felt hat made by KJ Murphy’s in Santa Ynez, California. Though she owns several hats, this one is her favorite. Photo by Alison Brannan.

Brannan says finding a hat that fit her head was difficult at first, which swayed her from wanting to wear one when she rode, so instead she sported a baseball cap. According to Atwood, that is a common problem and he recommends spending time with an experienced shaper to find the right size and shape.

“If a hat hurts your head, you’re not going to wear it,” says Brooks Atwood of Atwood Hat Company and Spradley Hats. Standard shapes include round, oval and long oval.

“Some people have heads as round as a dime and a long oval hat will never fit them. You can put some steam on it and make it fit, but that throws everything about the brim off. It warps the brim, so you have to go back to the drawing board,” he says. “I’ve had people who can’t buy a hat off the rack because if they’re looking straight at you, their hat is sitting one way or the other.”

Mundee says another common problem he sees is forcing a too-small hat to fit. “It’s a critical mistake when people cram a hat on their head because then it gives them a headache,” he says. “They think it has to be tight to keep it from flying away in the wind. If you get it too tight and have to cram it down, the whole time it wants to work its way back up.

“The function of the crown and crease is to keep the hat on your head. Sometimes when you buy it [already shaped], it’s pre-creased down too low.”

Bronc rider Jake Wright owns about a dozen hats, mostly made by Resistol. He prefers to wear a silverbelly, a light color that has long been popular in the Western industry. Photo by Ross Hecox.

Personal preference dictates the style of crease and crown, such as a cattleman’s crease, Brick, Gus, pinched front, and the list goes on. Your local hatter will have pictures and examples to show you.

Mundee pulls his hat all the way onto his head, his eyebrows just visible under the brim.

“When I get my hat all the way down on my head, [the brim] is hitting at the top of my ears,” he says. “Everybody is different from the top of the ear to the top of their head. There’s not a finite dimension there.

“You have to have the crown high enough, or the well in the crown high enough, so you can get all the way in your hat.”

For the best fit, a custom hat is a sure bet.

“If it’s in someone’s budget, they should go to a custom hatter,” Atwood says, adding that custom hats typically start at $900 for 100 percent beaver. “Try on hats until you find a style that suits you.”

Brannan agrees and says it’s worth the investment to feel confident on stage, or anywhere else.

“I was approached by hatmaker Kevin Murphy, who makes all my hats now in Santa Ynez [California]. He found the style that worked perfectly for me and fits my head,” she says, adding that she didn’t want a traditional hat.

“A lot of people, when they see a flat hat they think ‘traditional Great Basin.’ For me, my hat is a take on the old style,” she explains. “It’s not shaped exactly like everybody else’s; it’s got a quirk to it. I would say ‘a new take on an old style.’”

With the right-size hat and a comfortable fit, you can add finesse and style with a shape suited to you.

Tip-Top Shape
You’re probably familiar with the adage, “never judge a book by its cover.” If you read the fine print, it doesn’t apply to hats. A cowboy hat is a way for a person to represent his or her heritage and personal background. It’s not superficial—it’s a matter of pride.

That pride goes a long way in the show pen, and for Tish Fappani, a two-time National Reining Horse Association Futurity non-pro champion, a well-shaped hat speaks volumes to the judges.

“I like my felts better when I show,” she says. “When I walk in a show pen and I have a felt hat on, I feel more like I’m there to show. Of course, we’re in Arizona so over the summer at schooling shows, I’ll throw on a straw hat. But if I’m at a major event, I’ll always wear my felts.”

The horsewoman, who is married to reining horse trainer Andrea Fappani, has a handful of hats in her wardrobe, most made and shaped by Shorty’s Caboy Hattery. She coordinates her hats with her outfits, using the colors and style to complement the outfit and her ride.

Reining competitor Tish Fappani wears a custom hat made by Shorty’s Caboy Hattery. The Arizona horsewoman likes to coordinate her hats to her show outfits. Photo by Ross Hecox.

“I try to take [my show outfit] into consideration,” she explains, adding that she prefers hats without jewels and distracting elements, but does like brims with laser-etched details on the underside.

“I try not to get too gaudy with my hat, but my jackets will be really busy,” she says. “So I try to keep a clean, sharply shaped hat that ties into my chaps.”

Atwood says there are “as many styles of hat as there are hat wearers.”

“I’ve had a couple of people who were not hat wearers and they say, ‘Well, I just want a plain crown shape,’ then we put it on them and they look like a duck out of water,” he says. “We’ll shape and bend on that hat until we get the crown high and just right to fit their posture and stature. Then we’ll get the brim fixed to where it matches their face. Rule of thumb is cheekbone wide, but with the roughstock riders, the fronts of their hat have gotten so wide, about 8 to 9 inches wide.”

Koger says that buckaroo styles, with flat crowns and brims slightly curled up in the back, are popular in the Northwest, like Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. In West Texas, she says, many cowboys prefer 5-inch brims turned high on the sides with a “drip,” or V-shape, in the back.

“Barrel racers like their brims more flat, while Western pleasure, Western riding and halter [exhibitors] like their hats high and tight,” she adds. “Ropers like their hats slightly turned up on the sides.”

Of course these are all recommendations and trends, and nothing is set in stone. Mundee says the bottom line is comfort and confidence. A hat opens the door to the welcoming world of Western culture, and the hardest part may be taking the leap to wear one.

“You don’t have to live on a ranch to wear a hat,” Mundee says. “If you’re the guy on Wall Street and your boots have never touched the dirt but you dream of wide-open spaces, you don’t have to live the Western lifestyle. You just have to love it.”

This article was originally published in the April 2016 issue of Western Horseman. 

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