The purpose of a cowboy hat

WHAT IS THE PURPOSE of a cowboy hat?

Is it to keep us warm? To protect our heads and thinning hair from the sun?

I have puzzled over these questions and more during the long years I’ve been living west of the Missouri River. A cowboy hat is usually fairly stiff. Sometimes reinforced felt. Others a felt coated shell. Summer uniform accepts a just off-white straw version to keep the head cool. So what IS the purpose of a cowboy hat?

Before I attempt an answer allow me to digress just a bit. My spouse is a Montana girl and hails from a part of the state  where people DEFINITELY wear cowboy hats. She supports my wearing hats. But only one of my collection can seriously deserve the cowboy hat label and she just hates that one. However, much of what I know about the wearing of cowboy hats comes from my experience with THAT chapeau. Also I have gathered some intelligence from real Westerners who wear real cowboy hats.

What I offer here is by no means exhaustive but it’s a start. If anyone reading this has additions or wishes to argue any of my points, your comments are enthusiastically welcomed through the comment utility that follows this missive (please watch your language … this is a family blog).

  1. People who wear cowboy hats be they cowboys or drilling rig supervisors are known to spend much of their working day out of doors. Weather here in the West trends toward fewer cloud-covered days and more sunny days. A cowboy hat, as well as the hats I wear, reduce one’s exposure to the sun.
  2. In much of the West there isn’t a lot standing in the way of more than occasional robust gusts of wind. Wind can carry with it more than a little bit of dirt and dust. A cowboy hat can be pulled down the forehead to protect one’s eyes from a thorough sandblasting.
  3. One aspect of the cowboy hat I’ve found curious is its shape. Turns out this is entirely an evolutionary process driven, I expect, by good old American entrepreneurism in an earlier time. While riding a horse or simply trying to stay stood up in a high gust, a cowboy hat is aerodynamically designed to funnel the wind in a way that keeps your hat mostly on your head. So if you examine the back of a cowboy hat, the bend back there keeps wind from getting underneath the hat giving it unwanted lift. The narrow opening in the front forces air along its curved sides also helping to keep the hat on your head.
  4. Similar dynamics apply to snow and rain — the former more common than the latter. Rain in particular is likely to drip over the roll in the back and onto your rain slicker. 
  5. Warmth. Cowboy hats worn in winter months (September through June) afford warmth to the head. But with the ears, not so much. One thus supplements with a scarf that runs under the cowboy hat, over the ears and secured beneath an overcoat. While this is a classic look, I tend to depart from cowboy hat protocol when temperatures drop below -19 F. In these more than occasional circumstances I will opt for wool cap equipped with ear, neck and face protection (useful in other applications … bank robberies for example). 
  6. Fashion. As has been noted above, the cowboy hat begins as an essential element of western garb. But the cowboy hat has become an essential part of the westerner’s wardrobe. They can be very expensive and wearers are loathe to see one fly off the head and down a 2,000 foot drop-off. Even though The Lone Ranger has a bit of cord to keep his hat from flying away in the Texas heat, folks up this way are not similarly inclined. 

I am reminded this day of the topic explored herein. Out walking dogs at my sister-in-law’s central Wyoming ranch I became aware of a coming powerful windstorm. My first clue as I looked to the west was a rapidly approaching brown cloud. With no time to seek shelter I jammed my brimmed hat down my forehead, pressed my sunglasses to my nose and made my way back to the house staring at the ground where the wind was carving grooves into the soil. If I’d had the cowboy hat that my spouse dislikes I could have tested my assertions above. Despite my arguments about aerodynamics and what all I think chances were good that in this wind it would have been found in Rapid City, South Dakota.  

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