Leave Cowboy Hats to the Cowboys, Please.
The American cowboy symbolizes a nostalgic hero in our history. He embodies strength, perseverance, and ability. Added to this is an air of mystery; the cowboy exudes silent stoicism. He is more interested in working hard and appreciating the land than talking. His independence and fearlessness are legendary, and he doesn’t need a legion of followers or celebrity status to achieve what is before him. In addition to his unique character, he is also readily identified by his uniform: faded blue jeans, leather boots, and, of course, the classic cowboy hat.
This last item – the cowboy hat – was created accidentally by John B. Stetson in 1865. On a trip west, Stetson sought to entertain his friends by donning a wide-brimmed hat he fashioned himself. This garment proved not only amusing but useful, for it shaded his neck, face, and head from the elements and afforded more protection than smaller hats. He continued wearing the hat and went on to found the John B. Stetson Hat Company. Even today, he is acknowledged as the father of the cowboy hat.
Stetson built an empire for himself even as he crafted a permanent image of the American cowboy. One effect of this image is the belief that cowboys are universally rugged and handsome. Sun-burnished skin, an ever-present five o’clock shadow, and well-defined muscles… the cowboy has it all, at least in our minds. He can even boast of living and working against a picturesque backdrop of hardy terrain and open skies.
But the cowboy hat is no longer exclusive to the cowboy. In the hopes of aligning themselves with romantic visions of the West, many men and women of all walks of life wear cowboy hats. They make fashion statements everywhere they go, and the statements are neither good nor bad, but they are definitely misplaced. A cowboy hat can only be successfully worn by a cowboy. Otherwise, it’s a little like sporting a firefighter’s hat or a princess' tiara without possessing the respective title.
Most people wear cowboy hats, not as statements, but as accessories. They want to stand out in a crowd or match the theme of a particular event. (Which is why these hats prevail at country music concerts and rodeo exhibitions.) Yet this explanation doesn't dismiss the cowboy spirit, one that U.S. Senator Mike Enzi says “is about honesty, integrity, courage… Cowboys are models of strong character, sound family values, and good common sense.”
Americans identify with cowboys because they embody qualities that led to this country’s birth, including self-reliance and hard work. Cowboys are even credited with helping to settle the West, meaning their patriotism runs strong and true. If people who don’t possess these traits regularly don cowboy hats, they take away from the cowboy legacy. It sends the message that clothing makes you what you are, and that simply isn’t true. Wearing a cowboy hat does not a cowboy make, no matter how much a person may look the part.
Even men and women who are patriotic, industrious, and all other things a cowboy is supposed to be should leave the cowboy hat to the cowboy. It’s like wearing a Native American headdress, which most of us would not do because of the blatant show of disrespect. The next time an event calls for a hat, reach for an ivy cap or fedora and leave the cowboy hat to the men and women who wear them as part of their daily lives.