Fashion Myths – The hat that really won the West

Typical mid-century everyday round hat - the basis for what would become the cowboy hat

Typical mid-century everyday round hat – the basis for what would become the cowboy hat

When you think of the Wild West what probably comes to mind in terms of fashion includes sequined and feathered saloon girls, calico cotton dressed school marms, and ranch-hands, miners and outlaws in a mix of raggy denim, open vests and Spanish leather belts and boots.

Although some attempts have been made to ‘redress’ this Hollywood myth, the ubiquity of the cowboy hat still reigns in most film histories. In reality, the early cowboy hat was an everyday round hat typically worn by outdoor labourers in the mid 19th century for rain and sun protection. However, the wide brim tended to catch the wind when riding so beginning in the mid 1860s, the shape began to change. The brim gradually curled up at the sides, and the crown became deeper to sit lower on the head. The crown was also  dented for better aerodynamics and water-shedding, and sometimes a string was attached to keep the hat from completely flying off in a high wind or while riding hard. This style became common for ranch-hands but for everyone else, the hat that really won the West was the bowler.

Called the derby in the U.S., the bowler hat may be more associated with bumbershoot carrying British bankers in pin stripe suits, but in the 1880s it was the most commonly worn hat in the American west. It could be found on the heads of railroad workers, clerks,  merchants, farmers, day labourers, and even lawmen and outlaws. Bat Masterson, Butch Cassidy and Billy the Kid all wore one, and so did Marion Hedgepeth – better known as ‘The Derby Kid’.

The bowler hat was originally designed in 1849 by London hatmakers Thomas and William bowler for estate gamekeepers. The hat had a hard, rounded crown and narrow brim that protected the head while offering little resistance to branches and bush while walking through thick woods. The style was quickly adopted by both horseback riders and the working class because of its sensible and durable styling. By 1870 the style was popular in the U.S. and moving west with the migration of settlers.


Bowler headed men travelling on a coach in 1889

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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