It is just possible that the most recognized clothing icon of America is the cowboy hat. The broad-brimmed hat, designed to protect the wearer from the vicissitudes of sun and rain in the outdoors, seems to point to the wearer and the nation’s willingness to reach out into the unknown beyond the safe bounds of civilization to accept new challenges.


The idea of a wide-brimmed hat worn by a man on horseback reaches back to the 13th century and the Mongolian horsemen of the Asian steppes. When the Spanish came to the New World and introduced the horse to North American culture, the sombrero developed, probably in Central Mexico, as an alternative to the less adaptive headgear of Europe.


In 1865, John B. Stetson designed the first American version that we now recognize as the cowboy hat. It was called the “Boss of the Plains,” and it had a high crown to insulated the top of the wearer’s head, and broad brim to protect his face and neck from the sun. It was made of a high-grade fur felt, usually beaver, and was waterproof, light weight, and durable. A leather sweatband protected the hat and plain leather strap served as a band.


Because of the hat’s waterproof qualities, later models, with even higher crowns came to be call ten-gallon hats, although the hat would only hold about three quarts. A painting of a cowboy offering his horse “…the last drop from his Stetson,” became a company trademark. Actually, ten-gallon probably is a corruption of the Spanish phrase “tan galán” meaning “very gallant” or “really handsome.”


Cowboy hats were more than utilitarian, they were fashionable as well, and like fashion, the popular styles changed over the years, with crown and brim sizes growing and shrinking with changing tastes. Tim McCoy, a real cowboy and later star of programmer Westerns, wore a hat with a nine-inch crown in the 1930s.


Cowboys also showed their individuality with a variety of brim and crown shapes, like the Montana peak, the telescope, the Tom Mix, and the cattleman.


“Right now, with felts, and even with the straws, people like the sides brought up, really tall, almost straight up,” said Hannah Bryson, a sales associate at Dennard’s Western Wear in Sherman. “That was real popular in the 1950s and 60s and it’s coming back.”


Bryson said the favorites colors are silver belly, and off white and black, and a glance at the wall full of hats proves that true. The most popular brim width is four or four and a half inches. Some people want something smaller but not too often.


The highest priced hats are $300, made of beaver felt and are not uncommon. Stetson 100X El Presidente Felt goes for $1,000 and the Diamante 1000x hitting the $5,000 mark, are exceptions. 7X hats are generally considered a top of the line products.


In time, all hats take on the personality of the wearer, the way he or she wears it, the way he or she grabs the brim when putting it on or taking it off, eventually produce a distinctive look and attitude. And, that’s the cowboy way.


Edward Southerland is a feature writer for Best of Texoma. For more information, visit BestofTexoma.com or www.facebook.com/BestOfTexoma.