Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans


Another old post I have revised!


Hats off to the Stetson


There are three main ways to distinguish a cowboy: his horse, his gun and his hat. However, one is more important than the other two. Even unhorsed, on foot in town maybe, the gun and hat are still there. And even if there’s a gun ordinance in town and he has no pistol on his hip, for example in the saloon, you’ll still never separate him from his hat. When it all comes down to it, it’s the hat that makes the cowboy.


Matthew Chernov on How the West Was Cast said that they chose a simple cowboy hat as the logo or key image of their podcast because it instantly meant ‘Western’ to those who saw it. The hat alone was enough.


A modern Stetson, the Stageline. Yours for a mere $155.


He wears it out of doors, indoors and in some movies even in the bath.




It preserved your cowboy dignity when at your most vulnerable


All Western stars knew this. It was why, when they got a hat they liked and it just suited and fitted, they hung onto it through picture after picture.


Charlton Heston, talking about Will Penny:


Hats are very important. I used that hat in about four Westerns. Then someone stole it on me. Wish I could find him. I’d kill him. You get a good hat, you gotta hang on to it.


Heston Western headgear


Yup, you get a good hat, you gotta hang on to it.


And talking of Heston-Westerns, you will remember the bit in The Big Country where he takes one look at Eastern dude Gregory Peck’s hat and advises him not to wear it on the ranch. Hats here are a way of fitting in, almost a sign of manhood.



Chuck does not approve. But then Peck switches to a straw. Still not THAT Western. It underlines his Eastern-ness, you see.



James Stewart was as fond of his hat as he was of his horse Pie. It was a pretty beat-up, sweat-stained affair, that hat, a sorry-looking item to be sure. But it suited him perfectly and was part of Stewart as Western star. According to Howard Hughes in his book Stagecoach to Tombstone, the headgear was so precious to Stewart that he kept it in a vault between films. When he abandoned it in Shenandoah for anther hat, it ruined the film. Oh, alright then, Shenandoah wasn’t very good but I will grudgingly admit that there may just have been other reasons than headgear for that.




Shenandoah. Not so splendid.


John Wayne used the same hat for years, that excellent one he wore in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Bravo. Later, he generously gave it to Sammy Davis Jr and you can see it in Sergeants 3 – actually, it’s the only good thing about that movie. Of course it was too big for Sammy but that was part of the fun.



The hat had the front brim folded up and that was very common in the old West partly because old long guns had high sights and with the brim down, well, it got in the way. Similarly, many cowboys went for a brim curled on at least one side, so that it wouldn’t get in the way when roping. These were practical reasons, and indeed the hat was almost more a useful tool than anything else, but I guess many wearers were also making a fashion statement.


Nat Love holding the pose


Buffalo hunters fold the front brim up


Curly brim for roping


Andrew Patrick Nelson reminds us that Marty McFly left the 1950s cowboy hat he had chosen for his trip back to the Wild West in the De Lorean, so he commits the cardinal Western sin of being hatless. His Irish ancestor Seamus McFly gives him a bowler hat – more authentic, sure, but not cool enough, so Marty ends up with a square-crowned Clint Eastwood hat (plus poncho). Headgear happenstance but how much it signals!


Marty progresses



Randolph Scott (hats off) so loved his hat that he gave it a name, Chapeau. And by the way, Randy was one of the few Western stars who wore his hat with a stampede strap, that string to keep it on and which was convenient if you wanted to push the hat back and wear it on your back for a while. Cowboys must have used stampede straps all the time, surely, but most actors didn’t like them. Anyway, Chapeau came to a grisly end, crushed by a wagon wheel when Randy was doing his own stunts in a fight in Tall Man Riding in 1955. There are great tragedies in this world. Krakatoa, the death of Desdemona, the Shaanxi earthquake of 1556, the loss of Chapeau. We just have to grit our teeth and carry on. I once left a Stetson on a train. Come to that, I once left a Borsalino in a pew in Santa Maria Novella. I went back for it only a couple of hours later and it was already gone. To pinch a hat from a church! I expect Dante reserved an especially low circle in his Inferno for hat-stealers. I didn’t replace it, though. Borsalinos have really fallen off in quality. They used to be expensive but worth it for the style and top-notch felt they used. Now they are just expensive. I wear a Guerra for posh, these days. Fine hat.


Chapeau, Randy


But I seem to have strayed from the point. Back to Western hats.



Naturally there were many hatters in the West and many brands of hat but of them all, the Stetson seems to have claimed pride of place. To many people, Stetson and cowboy hat are synonymous. While panning for gold in Colorado in the 1860s, John B Stetson created a hard-wearing hat for himself made from thick beaver felt. Although he wore it first as a joke, Stetson soon grew fond of the hat for its ability to protect him from the elements. Its wide brim shielded him from the weather and the high crown kept an insulating pocket of air on the head. He even used it to carry water. So do I: when walking my dog Wyatt on a hot day I carry a bottle of water and give him a drink out of my hat. He likes it and it cools my head when I put the hat back on.


Hatless, John B?


The legend tells that a cowboy saw Stetson and his unusual hat, rode up, tried the headgear on for himself, and paid Stetson for it with a five-dollar gold piece, riding off with the first Western Stetson on his head. Stetson went into the hatting business, the Boss of the Plains was born and the rest is history.



Stetson made hats for the Texas Rangers, the US Cavalry hat and even those famous ones for the Canadian Mounties.


Not just in the US


In reality, of course, Westerners didn’t only wear Stetsons. You might think they did if you are keen follower of Hollywood movies (where they wear them in pictures set even before Stetson was born) but in fact you’d be just as likely to see Bat Masterson or an Earp in a derby or a top hat as a Stetson. Those wide-brimmed affairs weren’t really for town use. The writer and photographer Lucius Beebe called the bowler “the hat that won the West”. Of course everyone wore a hat in the nineteenth century; the only question was which.


Bat hat


The Wild Bunch show their class – with bowlers


And some screen cowboys became attached to different brands of hat. You can still buy a Tom Mix Stetson. Think of that great Western actor Glenn Ford: he wore a Jaxonbilt with curled brim that became recognizable as ‘his’ hat. See it in Jubal, say or any of many Westerns he starred in. Tex Ritter wore one too.


Glenn favored the Jaxonbilt


Reader Bob (who admits to having 30 hats) says that his favorite cowboy hats of all are:


Richard Boone’s Paladin hat, Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday hat; the hats Kirk Douglas wore in Last Train From Gun Hill and Gunfight at the OK Corral; and, of course, Buffalo Bill Cody’s hat.


An excellent choice, Robert.


Bob hats



Clearly the classic wide-brimmed cowboy hat was influenced by the Mexican sombrero. A high crown gave insulation and a broad brim gave shade. If you look at a picture like The Avenger, with Buck Jones, you can see the cross-over Mexican/cowboy effect.



Hats followed fashion and developed, though. Think of those huge ten-gallon affairs worn by the cowboys of the silver screen in the 1920s, right through into the 40s. Some of them were plain silly, but the actors felt obliged to wear them. Look at Tim McCoy, for example.


You cannot be serious


Actually, no hat could hold ten gallons. It was a mistranslation: a 10-galón sombrero was a hat with a crown large enough to have a hatband with ten braids. Cowboys took the phrase and anglicized it to a 10-gallon hat.


Later on Stetsons became rather more restrained. It was noticeable that in the 1960s brims got narrower and more curled. Like Horst Buchholz as Chico’s in The Magnificent Seven.


Horst hat


The crease became important. Early Stetsons didn’t have a crease but later they became essential. They gave hats individual character, and creases and dents make it easier to put on or remove the hat by grabbing it by the crown rather than the brim. The crease could tell you where a cowboy was from. Maybe he had a Montana Crease. A very popular crease used on cowboy hats is the Cattlemen, creased straight down the center of the crown with a dent on each side. Then there’s the Carlsbad crease, now often called a “Gus crease” after the character Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove. That keeps a high crown at the back, with the crease sloping steeply toward the front. Or you might favor the rodeo crease, the bullrider’s crease, the quarter horse crease, or the Tycoon, with a pinched front.


In fact Duvall was supposed to wear a sombrero in Lonesome Dove but he rebelled. Probably rightly. A sombrero is hard for a non-Mexican to wear convincingly.



Which crease do you go for?



Then we even got cowgirl hats, pink, maybe, and with sequins and fringes. Yes, well.



Inside the cowboy hat you always see a little ribbon bow. It’s in memory of past hatters, who developed brain damage from treating felt with mercury, which gave rise to the expression mad as a hatter. The bow on the inside hatband at the rear of the hat is supposed to resemble a skull and crossbones.


Of course there is the old cliché about the goodies wearing white hats and the baddies wearing black ones. It’s still trotted out today and you can still identify a villain by calling him a ’black hat’. It was always nonsense. Hopalong Cassidy dressed in black and he was no baddy. Perish the thought. Tom Mix appeared in black hats quite often. Black hats improved contrast in black & white movies.


No baddy he


The color was down to personal preference, not goodiness or badiness. Silverbelly (or gray) hats tend to look better on people with ruddy complexions, like John Wayne. “Black hats make me look beet red or deathly pale,” said Duke. “My silverbelly makes me look normal.” Duke often wore a Resistol.


In High Lonesome there’s a good bit where Chill Wills chooses a suitable hat for Cooncat, the newly-arrived and hatless youth who has turned up on the ranch. It takes some time before arriving at the right item. Chill knew just how important the choice was.


Sometimes hats ‘brand’ a character as a type. For example, if a fellow is wearing a coonskin cap, he will be a Hawkeye/Davy Crockett/Daniel Boone style of frontiersman, or a pioneer mountain man or trapper. Will Geer seems to be wearing half a wolf on his head in Jeremiah Johnson. Arthur Hunnicutt specialized in that headgear. He even wore one in the Everglades in Distant Drums. Must have been sweltering.


Will keeps warm


Maybe not entirely appropriate for the Florida summer


Characters in post-Civil War Westerns might wear their old army hat, and the color will signify their allegiance in the recent Unpleasantness Between the States.


Some actors, especially if playing a more juvenile or less serious character, tended to wear their hats on the back of their heads. This always looked wrong, even rather silly. But it did have the advantage from actor-vanity and also the lighting man’s perspective that it didn’t throw the face into too much shadow.



The reverse could happen, of course: the hat pulled down could mask the face – the visage of the mysterious man known only as Preacher in Pale Rider is deliberately dark, to heighten the mystery.



I suppose we could get into the whole subject of Indian headgear, war bonnets and such. But they aren’t cowboy hats. We’ll deal with those another day.


Sometimes hats play a key part in the film. Think of the much mocked low-crowned topper of James Caan in El Dorado.


A laughed-at hat


In Wild Bill there is a running gag of touching the hat. You don’t touch a man’s hat. That’s what causes most of the gunplay, when they touch Wild Bill’s hat. As Lyle Lovett sang, “You can have my girl but don’t touch my hat.”


Of course if you listen to the song Stag O’ Lee (try the Bob Dylan version) you will understand that taking another man’s Stetson is a shootin’ matter.



And if you are shot, and need an undertaker, the mortician will for sure be wearing a tall black top hat, a stovepipe. Abe Lincoln and undertakers appropriated that headgear to themselves. Even the black widow spider in Rango, an undertaker, had to wear one. Hangmen too, like James Stewart in Bandolero.


A stovepipe de rigueur


One of the great tragedies of that lovely movie Silverado was the decision by director Kasdan to cut out the scene where Kevin Kline, having just shot a man who had stolen his hat (fair enough), kicks up the headgear from the floor in a saloon with the toe of his boot and it lands on his head. Is that cool or what? Luckily you can see it in an out-take on the DVD.


All in all, there’s no doubt about it: you can have a cowboy without his horse, you can even have a cowboy without his gun; but without his hat? Never!



Like reader Bob, I have more hats than I need. One of the proudest moments of my life was when I was walking (no horse or gun) through Durango, Colorado and a gentleman passing by said, “Sir, that hat looks really great on you.” I don’t think he was being ironic.




12 Responses

  1. While I’m here- having just posted a comment politely disagreeing with one of your reviews! – may I say that I love this post. There’s surely a great book to be written (not by an academic, please) on hats in movies. Including gangster movies and other genres but very definitely including Westerns. The colour, the crown height, the brim length, the angle upon the head, one could keep the semiotics going for ever. (Yes, I like hats, and being a ‘follicly challenged’ (i.e. bald) fifty-something it’s one of my few remaining gambits for remaining vaguely stylish…)

    I really like Glenn Ford’s hat that you mention, he’s very cool in that. Perhaps a bit off-topic (I don’t know if you’d consider the movie in question to be a western) but I also particularly like Heath Ledger’s hat in Brokeback Mountain – quite low-crown and quite narrow but still definitely western, I’d buy one of these if I knew where to find it!

    Something you don’t mention but possibly merits a note, I appreciate I’m slightly veering off movies here. Arguably one of the most overtly ‘Western’ US presidents of the last century was LBJ (a complex, impressive and to be honest far from entirely likeable man who (I would argue) did a lot of both good and bad things in his political life) and he was particularly associated with the Stetson ‘Open Road’ model. Very light sandy-coloured hat that was sort of a hybrid of cowboy hats – it has a tall crown pinched at the top and centre – with more urban sophisticated chapeaux – it has a narrow brim. An oil man look, essentially. But resonates with the movies in that it projected him as a man connected to (South) Western life, independent and characterful?

    I do have a black Borsalino that I bought about 20 years ago- was that before or after the decline in that brand quality that you note?

    1. I saw Brokeback Mountain once but didn’t like it. It isn’t a Western, that’s probably why. Don’t recall the hat.
      Yes, I always thought LBJ looked like a Texas oilman. Back in the late 60s, when I was a bolshie young man, Johnson was the antichrist, because of Vietnam. It’s only with (adult) hindsight and perspective that one can appreciate the great things he did.

      1. I thought BM was well-intentioned and worth a watch, but one viewing was enough, doubt I’ll ever bother seeing it again. Indeed, not a Western as such but has some Western resonances. Especially in clothing – I enjoyed the protagonists’ duds – Ledger’s hat in particular – more than the actual plot…

        This site presumably isn’t the place for political controversy, but as an amateur student of American history from across the pond, I’d say LBJ was one of the USA’s best and worst presidents simultaneously. Worst because of Vietnam, best because of civil rights legislation. The vague relevance of this to Westerns is that LBJ projected such a Western, specifically Texan, persona – one can almost imagine him in character parts in 50s Westerns – and I get the impression he made use of that both in his PR and in, often rather brutishly, getting his way over other people behind the scenes…

        If you were ever minded to do a post on the politics of Westerns that would be a fascinating read! A lot of my friends spurn Westerns and find my liking for them baffling partly because they think of them as right wing ‘redneck’ stuff. The truth, as you of course don’t need me to tell you, is much more interesting and varied. (And anyhow I’ll personally always enjoy watching John Wayne the actor, even while being quite a long way away from John Wayne the man on the political spectrum…)

        1. I’m not sure I want to enter the political morass, nor am I qualified to do so apart from a general lay person’s interest, but I agree there are interesting aspects to politics and the Western. One thinks first of all the HUAC nonsense in the 50s, and the many Hollywood people who were pro and anti (some of whom suffered badly). The politics of John Ford, too, would make an interesting study, as he combined, somewhat bizarrely, right-wing views on certain matters with what we might call a social liberalism. Then there are all those early-70s Westerns which purported to be, or were claimed by audiences to be, Vietnam allegories. And the ‘social problem’ films which were fashionable for a time. Then there’s the politics of Native Americans. And so on. A big subject! Maybe one day.

          1. Doubtless wise to fight shy of the political morass. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread! Or as they used to say, never discuss politics or religion in mixed company (such artful discretion I fear no longer prevails in the social media age). And I expect your readers are as mixed a bunch politically as anyone else.

            But yes a big & interesting topic! The late British critic Philip French wrote a short book on Westerns about which I dont remember much other than he had a perhaps slightly silly theory of there being ‘Jimmy Carter westerns’ and ‘Ronald Reagan westerns’. Some films do feel ‘liberal/ progressive’ – lets say The Ox Bow Incident or Hombre. And some feel conservative-leaning e.g. Wayne’s Alamo movie or DeMille’s blockbusters. (And then there’s all those pseudo-Marxist Spaghettis,…) On the other hand I’ve always been a bit sceptical of High Noon and Rio Bravo being interpreted as being political rivals, i.e. HN a left-leaning HUAC allegory and RB a conservative riposte, because quite honestly I struggle to imagine that audiences at the time interpreted them that way- they’re both just good movies with good stories, characters and action!

          2. I think you’re right to be skeptical. The political angle can be overdone. First and foremost they are making a Western not a political statement, even if there may be a ‘slant’.
            I tried Philip French but found him too much in the dreaded ‘film studies’ domain, over-intellectualizing what are, after all, cowboy movies.

    2. To veer back into movies and LBJ two excellent depictions of the man were done on HBO ‘Path to War’ with Michael Gambon and ‘All the Way’ with Bryan Cranston. These two get a bit at his peculiar character along with the fantastic PBS American Experience documentary ‘LBJ’. I have always been fascinated by this flawed character. What a period of American history!

      1. I’ve seen Path to War- Gambon was v good in that- but not seen the Cranston one. Yes, fascinating and flawed character, containing multitudes… A ‘good-badman’ which sort-of takes us back to westerns I suppose!

  2. For a revision, you may have added a few words on the military headgear seen in the movies… American Revolution, War in Mexico, Civil War and of course the more western Indian wars are offering a wide range of slouch, fatigue or campaign hats, forage caps, bommers, shakos even helmets (Vera Cruz lancers…).
    I cannot imagine John Ford trilogy without any hat and cap…!

    1. I’m not terribly good at shakos and forage caps and such. It’s actually quite interesting how often Western movie soldiers appeared without any hat. Perhaps it was to show off their faces more.

  3. The Western Historians commentary on the DVD/Blu ray of ‘Silverado’ gets in a pretty good little discussion on hats in ‘Silverado’ and other Western critical and otherwise. Funny comments on Kevin Kline’s choice of headgear.

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