Cowboys in the Wild West: Debunking the Myth of the Cowboy Hat

Cowboys are legendary figures in the American Wild West, known for their ruggedness, bravery, and distinctive fashion sense. However, there are some misconceptions about these iconic figures, particularly when it comes to their choice of headwear. Contrary to popular belief, cowboys in the Wild West didn’t actually wear those tall, wide-brimmed cowboy hats that we often associate with them.

The Truth About Cowboy Hats

The Derby Hat: A Cowboy’s Preferred Choice

cowboy hats

When we think of a cowboy hat, the image of a Stetson often comes to mind. However, the Stetson, also known as the bowler hat, wasn’t popular among cowboys until the end of the 19th century. In reality, cowboys in the Wild West favored a different type of hat: the derby hat.

Photos dating back to the late 1800s clearly show famous outlaws and gunslingers donning derby hats. The Wild Bunch, including notorious figures like the Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy, can be seen wearing derby hats in their group pictures. Even Bat Masterson, a well-known gunslinger and gambler, preferred the derby hat. The classic image of Billy the Kid also depicts the outlaw wearing a hat that resembles a top hat, while Wild Bill Hickok was often photographed wearing a flat, pancake hat. Jesse James, another famous outlaw, could be seen sporting a low-crowned cap with an upturned brim.

Functional and Practical Hats for the Frontier

cowboys in their hats

Derby hats, also known as bowler hats, were not only stylish but also practical for the cowboys of the Wild West. These hats were commonly worn by men on the American frontier for various occasions. They were functional and stayed on even in windy conditions, making them ideal for cowboys who spent long hours outdoors.

Cowboys in the Wild West wore a variety of hats related to their employment and personal preferences. In addition to the derby hat, other common choices included flat wool caps, Mexican sombreros, and old Civil War hats like the kepi. These hats were typically made of beaver fur-felt and were natural in color.

Contrary to popular belief, the famous ten-gallon hat was not commonly worn by cowboys in the Wild West. It was considered impractical, and lawmen like Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp preferred low-crowned hats to avoid becoming easy targets for adversaries. The name “ten-gallon hat” actually originated from the Spanish word “Galon,” meaning braid. Spanish hats of that era often had braids on them, and a hat with ten braids was called a Ten-Galon hat.

The Evolution of the Cowboy Hat

The Boss of the Plains: The Original Stetson Hat


The classic cowboy hat we are familiar with today, often associated with the image of a cowboy riding into the sunset, was not the original design. The iconic Stetson hat, known as “The Boss of the Plains,” came onto the market in 1865. However, it didn’t resemble what we commonly think of as a cowboy hat.

The original Stetson hat featured a high crown and wide brim, more akin to an Amish hat than a cowboy hat. It was designed to be waterproof and protect the wearer from the elements, such as the scorching sun and pouring rain. The hat’s design, without a crease on the open crown, remained unchanged for several years.

John Stetson: The Innovator Behind the Cowboy Hat

The evolution of the cowboy hat can be attributed to John Stetson, the man behind the iconic Stetson brand. Legend has it that Stetson was inspired by the Spanish-derived hats he encountered after moving to the West. He combined elements from these hats to create a new style of headwear that would become synonymous with the American cowboy.

The Stetson hat featured 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. This innovation made it easier for cowboys to handle their hats while working. By the 1870s, cowboys began customizing their hats, shaping the crowns and brims to suit their preferences. The Montgomery Ward Catalog even started selling hats that allowed men to shape their hats according to their own style.

Debunking the Cowboy Hat Myth

The image of cowboys wearing tall, wide-brimmed hats has become deeply ingrained in popular culture, thanks to countless Western movies and novels. However, as we have learned, the reality of cowboy fashion in the Wild West was different from what we often see on the silver screen.

Cowboys in the Wild West preferred functional and practical hats like the derby hat, rather than the large cowboy hats we associate with them today. The Stetson hat, while iconic, was not the original cowboy hat design. It evolved over time, thanks to the innovation of John Stetson and the customization choices of cowboys themselves.

So, the next time you picture a cowboy riding into the sunset, remember that their choice of headwear was more diverse and practical than the Hollywood stereotype. The true cowboy hat is not just a fashion statement but a reflection of the challenging and ever-changing lifestyle of the cowboys in the Wild West.


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