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Wear History, Make History: The Iconic Cowboy Hat

man wearing cowboy hat
Written by Natalie Gasper

A History of the Hat: Cowboy Edition

Nothing is quite as iconic as the cowboy hat, which has a rich history dating back hundreds of years. Cowboy hats are an integral part of America’s Western frontier and are recognizable worldwide. I was curious about their background and how cowboy hats have evolved over the years to the symbol we know and love. So I figured I’d share my findings with you!

The first evidence of cowboy hats comes from Mongolia in the 1200s. What we know today as the modern cowboy hat, started in 1865 with John Stetson’s “Boss of the Plains” hat.

While often used as a fashion statement, cowboy hats serve many purposes, including protection from the elements. There are many parts to a cowboy hat, including the material, brim shape, and crown shape. Cowboy hats have a culture all their own, which is built around respect and good manners.

man wearing cowboy hat working on saddle

Source: Canva

Cowboy Hats: A Brief History

Let’s dive into a brief history of the cowboy hat.


The first cowboy hats can be traced back to the 13th century in Mongolia. Mongolia was well-known for the skill of its horsemen. Art from that time shows workers and riders wearing tall, wide-brimmed hats (to protect them from the sun).

mongolian man and horse

Source: Canva


The vaqueros are a rich part of cowboy hat history, thanks to their sombreros. Vaqueros came about in Mexico in the 1500s and wore tall, flat-crowned, wide-brimmed hats.

mexican vaquero riding horse

Source: Canva

America, 1700s-1864

As the Mexican vaquero tradition traveled north and west into the United States, so traveled the practice of ranchers wearing hats. Some of the most popular hat choices for cowboys during this time included derby hats (or bowlers), top hats, wool caps, sombreros, and Civil War hats.

black and white photo of man holding hat in rocking chair on porch with woman and two dogs

Source: Canva

America, 1865

1865 was a monumental year for the modern cowboy hat. John Stetson created the “Boss of the Plains” hat, inspired by the Mexican sombrero, and this hat quickly became a classic.

This hat featured a round, flat brim and a smooth crown. Stetson used materials like rabbit and beaver fur to help the hat withstand the elements. The “Boss of the Plains” hat was durable and well-suited to the needs of working Westerners.

Cowboy Hat Function

Cowboy hats may be popular today as a fashion statement, but they also serve many useful functions for cowboys and ranchers. Mainly, a cowboy hat provides protection from the sun during those long, hot days in the saddle. They can also help keep your head warm in the winter and dry when it’s raining.

Cowboy hats can also be used to take water from a stream or to signal to other ranch hands.

man with guitar wearing cowboy hat

Source: Canva

Cowboy Hat Form

When it comes to cowboy hats, there’s an almost unlimited combination of shapes. Between the crown, crease, brim, and hatband, no two hats are truly the same.


The first thing to consider is what you want your hat to be made from.


Felt hats are some of the most popular and are usually made from beaver, rabbit, or wool. Beaver or rabbit felt are great choices because they provide waterproofing and insulation. Wool isn’t as good of a choice because it doesn’t hold its shape very well.


Straw is a popular choice during those hot summer months. It provides airflow to keep you cool and is less expensive than felt hats. Regardless, straw hats aren’t waterproof. Straw hats tend to be more seasonal, while felt hats are appropriate year-round.

Brim Shapes

There are several types of brim shapes to choose from.

  • Bull Rider
  • Buckaroo (or Flat)
  • Rancher
  • Reiner (high and low sides)
  • Quarter Horse (or Show Crease)
  • Western

Crown Shapes

Crown shapes are a great way to show your personality.

  • Brick Crease
  • Boss of the Plains
  • Ten Gallon
  • Gambler
  • Gus
  • The Dakota
  • Pinch Front
  • Cattleman Crease

Learn more about crease & crown shapes here.

four people riding horses wearing cowboy hats

Source: Canva

Cowboy Hat Culture

Cowboy hats have a culture all their own. You can learn more about it hat customs here, but these are some key things to keep in mind.


The most important thing to know is that cowboys are all about respect, and that respect extends to their hats. In situations that require solemnity, like during the National Anthem or funeral processions, it’s best to hold the hat in your right hand over your heart.

To respect the hat itself, always hang it or place it crown-side down (to protect the shape of the brim). NEVER touch another person’s hat.

When to Remove Your Hat

Cowboys will typically remove their hats when introduced to a woman, meeting someone new, or indoors. It’s considered polite to remove your hat by the crown (to not show the interior).

Outdoor Gatherings

The outdoors is a whole different playing field. Basically, if you’re outside, your hat should be on (this prevents people from stepping in it or dropping food or drink into it).

brown felt cowboy hat

Source: Canva

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What did cowboys wear before cowboy hats?

Before the modern cowboy hat, cowboys wore derbies (also known as bowler hats). Some also wore flat caps made from wool, Civil War hats, or Mexican sombreros.

Q: What is the oldest cowboy hat?

Cowboys have been wearing one hat or another for centuries, but the oldest modern cowboy hat is generally considered the “Boss of the Plains” hat, created by John Stetson.

Q: Are cowboy hats American or Mexican?

American cowboys and Mexican vaqueros both wear hats. It’s believed that John Stetson, the original American cowboy hat maker, was inspired by the hat designs of the vaqueros.

Q: Is the cowboy hat an American invention?

Cowboy hats can be traced back to the 1200s in Mongolia, but the modern cowboy hat is credited to American hat maker John Stetson.

Q: What culture wears cowboy hats?

American culture is closely associated with the cowboy hat, thanks to the iconic history of the Wild West. Mexicans also wear cowboy hats, though they call them sombreros (coming from the word sombra, or shade).

man riding horse and waving

Source: Canva

Parting Thoughts

Cowboy hats don’t just look good, they also have a long and rich history dating back hundreds of years. Use this knowledge to wear your cowboy hat with pride!

P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to: 


History of the Cowboy Hat – National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum (

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About the author


Natalie Gasper

Nancy loves retraining off the track Thoroughbreds and working with her dogs!