Every cowboy hat has a story to tell.
When you walk through our galleries here at the Sid Richardson Museum, you’ll not have to journey far before you encounter an artwork featuring a figure in a Western-style hat. But not each hat is the same. Every cowboy hat carries the history of its wearer, whether that be Mexican vaquero hats, Charro hats, the hats of western performers or rodeo stars, and of course the working cowboy hats. So let’s take a journey through some highlights from our collection to explore the evolution and different iterations of the cowboy hat.
Seen prominently in black and white, the cowboy featured in Frederic Remington’s 1901 The Cow Puncher wears what’s known as a sombrero texanas, which translated roughly means a Texas or cowboy hat. Riding at full gallop, the front brim of the figure’s hat has flipped up from the wind. Don’t be mistaken – he didn’t set it like that. The hat brim has an important function to protect the wearer’s eyes from the sun. A flipped brim, as seen in Remington’s painting, is more a consequence of the situation than an aesthetic choice.
Another style of hat often seen in the American West is what’s known as the “Boss of the Plains,” which was designed by John B. Stetson in 1865. Originally from a family of hat makers in Philadelphia, Stetson had traveled through the American West working in the mines in Colorado, Idaho, and Utah. It was during this time that he observed a group of Mexicans who were wearing felt sombreros. Stetson, inspired by the choice in material, incorporated felt into his design for a lightweight, all-weather hat ideal for the cowboys and Western colonial settlers in the region.
Though the “Boss of the Plains” is sometimes considered the first real cowboy hat, the origins of the cowboy hat must be traced back to northern & western Africa, with the Fulani people. When captured, enslaved, and forcibly expatriated to Mexico during the Atlantic slave trade, the Fulani people brought with them their woven and leather hats. Another cowboy-related accessory the Fulani imported to the Americas were ropes; Fulani people were cattle herders in Africa, using ropes for herding at a time when no one else was using ropes with loops, except as leads for taking animals from one place to another. Eventually the coalescing of these technologies on horseback lead to the development of the Mexican vaquero. So ultimately, the first cowboys were cowboys of color.
These Fulani hats evolved into the vaquero’s hat, or a vaqueteada. They were often wide brimmed and low crowned. The first vaqueros were required to wear all leather clothing, not only for protection but also to be recognized from afar as a working cowboy by the Spanish colonizers. Eventually the vaqueteada evolved and was made with different materials that are little less hot, woven from plant materials like straw & palm, and later with imported wool from Europe.
Have you ever heard of a vaqueteada con galones? Galones are what in English we call a hat band. Each galón signified stature. The higher the stack of galones, the higher the wearer’s status. Ever heard of a hat with diez galones? In English, perhaps you’re familiar with the phrase “a ten-gallon hat.” Well, now you know that it has nothing to do with the hat’s capacity but rather the number of hat bands!
During his travels throughout the American West while on assignment, Frederic Remington observed the many people he encountered, as seen in his 1889 painting The Sentinel. Here the figure is wearing a vaqueteada. In a letter to a friend, Remington reports:
“The old time vaqueros were all Indians, and their hats were imported from Chili [sic]. They dressed in cotton and leather, and were not the expensive and be-tinseled beings which have gone into popular fancy any more than the soldiers at Valley Forge were dressed in velvet coats and yellow silk stockings.”
It’s unclear where Remington got the idea of these hats being imported from Chile, as they’re likely from Mexico. The artist’s remark about “be-tinseled beings” denotes how most people were seeing photographs not of vaqueros, but likely the rancheros and owners of haciendas in California.
Remington wasn’t the only artist in the Sid Richardson Museum’s collection who features different types of Western-style hats. In Frank Tenney Johnson’s 1925 painting Contrabandista a la Frontera, the main figure on the right is wearing what’s known as a sombrero de piloncillo, or sugarloaf sombreros. The name derives from the hat’s resemblance to the cones of brown sugar sold in Mexican markets. See its tall cone-shaped top? That tall crown allowed for better ventilation and made it a lot less hot for the wearer.
Learn more about different styles of hats and their wearers in our recorded lecture by Michael Grauer, McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture and Curator of Cowboy Collections & Western Art, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum