Cowboy hats are much more than a piece of apparel.
By Gavin Ehringer, written in the 1994 Western Horseman Consumer Buying Guide.
In The Old West, cowboys and citizens of the Plains seldom ventured outside without a hat to protect them from the hot sun. In fact, that’s why Mexicans called their wide-brimmed hats sombreros, which literally means “sun shades.”
Cowboy hats remain important to working cowboys and ranchers who still count on them for protection from sun, wind, and storm. But the cowboy hat is much more than a piece of work clothing: It is a symbol of western values and lifestyles, worn by people from all walks of life.
A hat says a lot about the person who wears it, and some of us form our opinions of others based on their hats. We shouldn’t be too closed-minded about this, because the man who wears his hat once a year at a rodeo may be just as proud of it as the world champion cowboy wearing his newest signature model.
With hats, as with most clothing, styles change with time. Popular creases come and go, brim sizes shrink and grow, and bright, fancy colors sometimes compete with the more somber and traditional black, silver belly, and brown. But one thing remains unchanged: A quality hat never goes out of fashion. Well-made felt hats, though expensive, can last through several hard years of wear with proper care. A good straw hat will outlast a shoddy, loosely woven hat every time.
Chuck Bailey of the Bailey Hat Co. knows a lot about what goes into a quality hat. Bailey shared some of this information in a seminar held at the annual Denver International Western/ English Apparel & Equipment Market.
In a felt hat, the quality depends on the materials used. Most lower-cost hats are made of commercial rabbit fur, which comes from northern Europe and is a byproduct of the rabbit meat industry. Higher-quality hats contain fur from beaver and/or wild hares, obtained in Canada, Australia, and Argentina.
Generally, the more beaver fur the hat contains, the more costly the hat. A beaver hat has a more luxurious feel to it than a rabbit fur hat. Beaver fur has much thinner, finer fibers or filaments than rabbit fur. Felt that is largely or completely made of these finer filaments will be denser, more durable, and water resistant than felt made of coarser fur.
Beaver fur from damaged pelts – those with cosmetic flaws or holes – is acceptable for most hats, but the very finest hat fur is taken from garment quality pelts. Manufacturers must, therefore, compete with the garment industry for these top-grade furs, hence the higher cost of the hats.