Cowboy Hats 101: Choosing the Hat That is Right for You

Cowboy Hats 101: Choosing the Hat That is Right for You

Posted by Green Mountain Horse & Tack on 25th May 2022

When cowboy hats first became popular in the early 1800s, they were usually made of the fur from small game animals like rabbit and beaver. The more beaver in the fur blend, the better the hat – beaver is the ultimate hat material due to its crazy ability to bead and disperse water and moisture. Today cowboy hats are made from a variety of materials such as wool, fur-blended felt, straw, paper (a widely used material and very acceptable material called shantung) palm leaf, and leather. Choosing the perfect cowboy hat is an important and a personal decision for any individual who wants to add a unique distinction to their look and honor an amazing chapter in US history.

stetson Gus Felt hat

Whether you're looking for a cowboy hat that offers a stylish flair or one that will purely function to shield you from the sun and elements, there's something out there for everyone. Reading this guide will help you understand cowboy hat materials, construction varieties and styles so you can find the right hat for your needs.

From musicians to movie stars, sun-worshipers and bar-hoppers, more and more people are donning this iconic cowboy flair. Cowboy hats have been worn by some of the most well-known people in the world, including US Presidents (Reagan and LBJ are a couple of them), and continue to be a popular choice for men and women in every part of the United States. Whether you plan to wear your hat all the time or only on occasional nights out with friends, with many shapes, materials, and styles to choose from, cowboy hats can make a bun and bold statement and are appropriate no matter where you go.

Fashion or Function?

The first question you should ask yourself is this: when will you wear your hat and what will you be doing? Some cowboy hats are made to block the sun and provide cooling ventilation, while others are designed purely for style over practicality. Some cowboy hat styles have a wide brim, while other cowboy hats have short brims. Maybe you're looking for a festival hat to wear to concerts and parties, or an everyday hat that will never leave your head. Think about when you'll be wearing your cowboy hat and what the occasions might be before making your purchase, as this should have a real influence on your purchase.

There are several factors to consider when buying a cowboy hat. Cowboy hats are made from a variety of materials such as wool felt, fur felt, straw, palm leaf and leather. Straw hats are generally less expensive than cowboy hats made from fur-felt and are generally considered hot weather cowboy hats. Fur felt cowboy hats are generally more expensive than straw cowboy hats but offer greater protection from the elements and will keep you warm in winter months instead of just blocking out sun rays. Cowboy hats made from pure wool are the least expensive felt hats available today and are generally available for around $100 or less.

Beware the Wool

If you choose the cheap route with a wool hat, be aware that they are not as durable as fur-felt blend cowboy hats and will eventually lose their ability to hold their shape without further treatment like hat stiffener or a starch spray. As the fur content in the felt increase, so does the price. But fur felt hats are more durable and will maintain their shape longer than a wool cowboy hat and will withstand a good rainstorm, so these should be viewed as a great long-term investment.

Straw hats are outstanding in the hot summer sun. They keep the sun out of your eyes and are often vented to allow circulation around the top of your head. Straw hats are generally less expensive than felt hats and can often be had for under $50. As the quality of the material and the shellac treatment improves, and with upgraded sweatbands and hatbands, prices on straws can increase to $150 and up. Palm leaf hats, an alternative to straw, are also wonderful hats that are extremely durable and lightweight. Palm hats are great for the beach, working on the lawn and garden and are wonderful alternatives to the traditional straw cowboy hat.

Properly fitting a hat correctly is accomplished first by measuring the circumference of your head. With a seamstress tape, measure about an inch above your ear around your head. This will give you a starting point to start trying on hats.

Hat sizing chart

Now keep in mind that the measurement is a starting point. The correct size can differ based on the material thickness of the sweatband and the oval shape that a particular manufacturer uses to construct the hat; the most common shapes you’ll find on the market are regular oval and long oval. Most folks are fine with regular oval shapes, which are the default shape more the majority of hats on the market today. Custom hat makers can, for a sizable sum, create a hat for your personal head shape, and will typically use a device called a Conformateur to measure the exact shape of your head for a perfect fit when creating a custom hat. Custom hats are great, but you’ll be dishing out significant money for one.

How should the fit feel?

A real concern for most first-time hat buyers is how, exactly, a proper hat fit should feel on your head. Cowboy hats should fit snugly, as you don't want it to fly off your head in a stiff wind. With the hat on your head, try rapidly shaking your head and bend over to see how secure the hat is. If the fit is good, the hat will not feel like it is at risk of flying off. But it should not be so tight that you feel like your head is in a vice, and there should not be a red line across your forehead when the hat is removed, indicating the hat is fitting a bit too tight to your head. Some folks like a super tight-fitting hat if they're actively working in the hat or in a windy environment. Again, the conditions in which you wear the hat can help dictate the tightness of the fit. It should be feel snug and secure but should not feel uncomfortably tight around your head.

stetson sawmill palm hat

Quality matters more than you may think. Many folks wonder what happened to their $50 wool hat after a season of wearing it, not realizing that the material is a price-oriented compromise regarding long-term wear. Wool (non-fur blend or pure wool) is the most popular material used to make cowboy hats because of its low cost.. A wool felt hat purchase feels good because the investment is minor, but if you plan on wearing your cowboy hat for more than a couple of years or for protection in all kinds of weather, you will be quickly disappointed after you get caught in your first downpour. Wool hats are not durable when wet and they can quickly become permanently misshapen if caught in the rain. And you might get one or two re-shapings out of it – after that, it will be as floppy as a warm tortilla.

Having said that, wool hats do have a viable place in the market – they are great if you need a hat for a one-time Western-themed wedding or event, and don’t plan on wearing it very often afterward. They’re also great for kids whose heads are still growing. But if you’re going to be wearing it often and make your hat part of your daily life, we recommend upgrading to a fur-felt hat.

It's worth investing in a better cowboy hat that is constructed from a fur-blend felt. If you're wearing your hat to shield you from weather or for daily wear, plan on spending a bit more money on a hat that is at least 15% fur, preferably 20% and up - or plan on buying a new hat every couple of years. At the time of this writing, a 15% fur-felt hat is going to set you back about $250. A 10% fur hat will be roughly $150-200 – still a much better, longer lasting investment than a $70 wool hat. A 100% beaver hat is going to set you back at least $1500 and probably closer to $2000. To give you some perspective, when JB Stetson was selling his new hats in the 1800’s, his 100% beaver hats went for $100 – and that too, was a tremendous amount of money in the 1870’s and limited to those customers with deep pockets.

Summer straw hats are a bit less complicated than felt hats and you can buy an inexpensive $40 hat and replace a

resistol Hazer straw hat

straw every couple of years without complaint. But there are differences in straw hats that are worth noting here.

Now a $20 hat you pick up at the county fair is just that - a $20 hat. Who cares if your daughter runs it over with the car? It was only $20. But you can spend some money on a high-quality straw hat as well. The best straw hats will have a tighter weave, and the shellac used in manufacturing is higher quality for long-lasting shape hold and protection. You will also find upgraded hatbands and sweatbands and higher quality materials in the straw so they will fit better and will be much more comfortable to wear.

Again, a wonderful material for straw hats is palm leaf. We’re big fans of palm hats – they are lightweight, durable, and have a very cooling feel in the heat. You can find palm leaf hats with a variety of weave patterns that give you several choices to match your style. These are terrific hats for gardening, tractor-time, and mowing the lawn. Palm hats are virtually indestructible and will last for years.

Now that you know a bit about cowboy hats, you can go to our hat department and be able to make a purchase that will work for you. We have cowboy hats in a wide range of styles and prices, so go find the cowboy hat that is right for your budget and style preference.