History of the Cowboy Hat: Why do Cowboys Wear Hats?

THE HORSE TRAINER in Pencil, Poster print

Ever asked yourself: “Why do cowboys wear hats?”. Here’s a brief history of the cowboy hat which should answer your question!

History of the Cowboy Hat:

It’s hard to say when the first human attempted to make the first hat. It’s likely to have been very early in human history, certainly before Ancient Greece or Rome. It’s easier however, to trace the origin of the first cowboy-like hats.

Some of the first cowboy-like hats, known for their high crowns and wide brims, have been in existence as long ago as in the 13th century when they were documented to have been worn by Mongolian horsemen.(1) Why did these horsemen wear such hats? It’s likely to be for similar reasons as to why cowboys wear hats, which is discussed below.

The fashion of wearing hats was not only amongst Mongolian horsemen, but was also prevalent throughout much of Europe, particularly from the 14th century onwards.

The Legend of Zorro

There were various hat shapes around, but the Spanish hats (similar to the hat worn by Zorro in “The Mask of Zorro”) most closely resembled a cowboy hat, and these Spanish designs are likely to have been the earliest direct ancestors of the cowboy hat. How do we know that? Because it was the Spaniards who brought the hat to America. This happened around the time of the Spanish colonization of the Americas, which started just after Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas in 1492.

It is likely that from South and Central America, the Spanish hats evolved to become more cowboy-hat-shaped, developing a higher crown and wider brim than the original designs by the time they reached Mexico. Texans adopted their Mexican neighbours’ hat style and soon these hats became common throughout this area of the West.

One hat maker in particular became famous for his cowboy hats. In the 1860s a young hat maker from New Jersey called John Stetson moved to the dry-aired West in an attempt to cure his damp-weather-associated tuberculosis. It was here that John Stetson was inspired to create what is today considered by many to be the official cowboy hat.

Western Cowboy Sunset Silhouette print

The story goes that after his move to the West, Stetson happened to be on a trip, hunting for beaver. On this trip he constructed a hat from the beaver fur creating a hat of fur felt. The Spanish-derived hats he had seen in the area may well have inspired the shape of this hat. Like these Spanish-derived hats, Stetson’s invention had a wide brim and a high crown. On the road, Stetson wore his creation, and on the way he came across a cowboy who admired the hat, thought it looked mighty useful, and paid Stetson a hefty sum of $5 for it. Ever since then, cowboys have been wearing “Stetsons” and similarly designed hats.

What did the cowboy like so much about the Stetson hat? He probably liked it for all the reasons most cowboys like to wear their hats.

Why do cowboys wear hats?

1. To protect against the weather

Thoughts print
  • Protection from the sun in summer: The wide brim of the hat keeps the sun’s glare out of the eyes; a handy tool before the invention of sunglasses. It also helped to protect the face and neck from sunburn before sun block existed.
  • Protection from the heat in summer: White and light-colored cowboy hats like those made of straw can reflect the sun’s light, deflecting its heat. The high crown of the hat also helps to keep the head cool. Another trick used by cowboys on hot summer days was to dunk their hats in a nearby freshwater stream and wear their newly water-cooled hats to help fend off the heat. The hats also made a good makeshift fan.
  • Protection from the cold in winter: In winter the tall crown of the hat provided a pocket of air as insulation to help conserve heat. A dark-colored wool or felt hat helps absorb light and heat to keep the head warm.
  • Protection from the rain: The wide brim of the hat acts like an umbrella keeping the rain, sleet and even snow out of the face, keeping you dry. The animal-fur felt hats are the most waterproof, and even straw or wool hats can be waterproof to a certain extent, depending on the tightness of the weave. Most Stetsons are weaved tightly enough to be used to hold water to feed your horse if needs be! (2)

2. Useful for signalling from a distance

The large cowboy hat with its wide brim is perfect for signalling because it’s large enough to be seen across the vast plains of the West. Before the days of cell phones, hat signalling was handy for cowboys to communicate the direction they wanted to move the cattle.

Stars 'n Stripes Siesta magnet

3. To use to make sleeping conditions more comfy

Cowboys sleeping out in the open air could sometimes use their hats to shut out any light if they happened to be catching some shuteye during the day. If their hats were durable enough (like some of the wool ones are), they could even make a makeshift pillow out of their hat when sleeping out on the plains at night.

4. Useful as makeshift water buckets for the horses

One of the selling points used in felt or wool Stetson hat adverts was having a picture of a cowboy giving his horse a drink of water from his hat.

Note: Do not try this with straw hats as it would probably ruin them.

Fun fact: It used to be thought that the famous “Ten-gallon hat” was so named because of the myth that it could hold 10 gallons of water, but this isn’t the case. The name actually comes from the Spanish word Galón which means “braid”, because many of the authentic Spanish hats were decorated with braids, and those decorated with 10 braids were “Ten-Galón hats”.

5. The hat could be shaped and personalized to make it a useful identification device

Howdy! Cowboy Stick Figure Sticker sticker

The cowboy hat is soft and pliable to a certain extent. Hot steam can be used to shape it. One of the most identifying marks of a hat is in its crease pattern. In the past creases were used to indicate the identity of the cowboy. For example, certain creases were used for cattlemen and others for bullriders. Aside from indicating the hat-wearer’s job, hat creases could also indicate information like where the cowboy was from and which ranch he was working for.

6. It can hide a bald head

Not only can a cowboy hat have all the above mentioned uses, but it is also handy for hiding a bald pate!

7. It looks purdy

Many people in the West wear cowboy hats today for its practicality described above, but another advantage of the cowboy hat is that it can look pretty darn good! For some this is yet another benefit to wearing the hat, but for others this is the sole reason for wearing it. And why not? Just as you don’t have to be a baseball player to wear a baseball cap, you don’t need to be a cowboy to enjoy wearing a cowboy hat.


1 Bender. 1994. Hats and the cowboys who wear them.

2 Snyder. 1997. Stetson Hats and the John B. Stetson Company 1865-1970.

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2 Responses to History of the Cowboy Hat: Why do Cowboys Wear Hats?

  1. Zelda Z. says:

    Stetsons are made of felt, which is compressed, not “weaved.”

  2. HorseWeb says:

    Well, now there’s one less question =) Yesterday, before going to bed, I was very excited about this question. It was interesting. Thank you for sharing!

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