Cowboys In The Wild West Didn’t Wear Cowboy Hats

They seemed to actually prefer derby hats.

Vintage & Historical
3 min
Noelle Talmon
Noelle Talmon
Cowboys In The Wild West Didn’t Wear Cowboy Hats
All stories
Vintage & Historical

Cowboys are a symbol of the American Wild West, but there are some tales about them that aren’t true. They rarely fought Native Americans, they were more likely to die from falling off a horse than in a gunfight, and they didn’t wear those tall, wide-brimmed cowboy hats you see in Westerns.

The Derby Hat

The iconic Stetson came onto the market in 1865, and it wasn’t popular until the end of the 19th century.

Vintage Fort Worth

A cowboy’s preferred choice of hat? The derby—also known as the bowler. Photos of the Wild Bunch from 1892 and 1900 clearly show the gang—Harry A. Longabaugh (the Sundance Kid), Ben Kilpatrick (the Tall Texan), Robert Leroy Parker (Butch Cassidy), Harvey Logan (Kid Curry), and Will Carver—donning derby hats.

Left to right: Bat Masterson, Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, and Jesse James.

Famous gunslinger and gambler Bat Masterson also favored the derby. The classic photo of American West gunfighter Billy the Kid depicts the outlaw wearing what resembles a top hat. Wild Bill Hickok was photographed in a flat, pancake hat. An 1882 photo of Jesse James shows the outlaw in a low-crowned cap with an upturned brim.

Men commonly wore hats on the American frontier, and derby hats were functional for various occasions. Most photographs from that time feature men wearing them and one of the reasons they were popular is because they stayed on in windy conditions.

More Hat History

Frontiersman typically wore hats related to their employment, and they were commonly made of beaver fur-felt and were natural in color. In addition to the derby, men wore flat wool caps, Mexican sombreros, or old Civil War hats (such as the kepi).

As for the ten-gallon hat, it would have been impractical, even if it was impressive to 20th-century moviegoers. Famous lawmen such as Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp wore low-crowned hats because giant cowboy hats would have made them easy targets for adversaries.

The ten-gallon hat got its name from the Spanish word “Galón,” not because it could hold 10 gallons of water. Galón means braid, and many Spanish hats in that era had braids on them. One with 10 braids was called a Ten-Galón hat.

The original Stetson was dubbed “The Boss of the Plains,” and it didn’t resemble what we think of as a cowboy hat today. It featured a high crown and wide brim and looked a bit like an Amish hat. It was waterproof and shielded the wearer from elements such as the sun and rain. The hat’s design, which didn’t have a crease on the open crown, stayed the same for several years.

The Wonderful Wild West

John Stetson’s classic cowboy hat was possibly inspired by the Spanish-derived hats he encountered after he moved to the West. He created the iconic headwear, which features a crease in the middle of a high crown with a dent on each side, allowing the wearer to remove it by the crown instead of the brim.

Legend is that he met a cowboy on the road, who was so impressed by the hat that he gave Stetson $5 for it (a rather large amount at that time). The rest is history. By the 1870s, cowboys took to customizing their hats, and in 1872, Montgomery Ward Catalog sold hats that allowed men to shape the crowns and brim to suit their preferences.

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