If I told you I saw a cowboy, you would immediately have a picture in your mind of what I meant. Spurs or no spurs, you’d be picturing a man wearing a hat with a tall crown and a wide brim. This basic design, first called “The Boss of the Plains” model, came into being in 1865 in the small workshop of John B. Stetson.
He was born in 1830, and like so many men his age he was called westward by the promise of gold. The story goes that while he was in Colorado hunting with some buddies he put on a little demonstration about the benefits of making a hat with no tanned leather. He used felt, in this case made from beaver fur but any natural fiber will do, to fabricate something that was meant as a joke, but turned into an icon. The wide brim kept the sun and rain out of his face and the tall crown left a space above his head to carry a canteen.
In 1865 he ended his wanderings and opened up his hat shop where the first “Boss” was made. At first each hat was handmade and constructed of expensive materials (it takes 42 beaver pelts to make enough felt for one hat), wearing a real Stetson was a mark of wealth in the Old West. They also had the advantage of being adjustable, thus the band where the brim meets the crown.
By 1886, his hat factory grew to be the largest in the world and included the newest innovations in mechanized haberdashery, but the reputation for quality was already in place despite losing the handmade touch. In 1894, he had a factory that covered 9 full acres at his disposal.
Over time several variations on the original style arose, and especially in Texas the “10-gallon” hat became the favorite. Felt hats are waterproof, and an early advertisement of this over-sized model showed a cowboy dipping his hat into a stream to water his horse. Other variations were worn by military and police officers both in the US and abroad. For instance, the Canadian Mounted Police still wear a Stetson with a flat brim even today.
Like Bowlers, Stetsons are a popular accessory to upcycle into a Steampunk, so here are a few of my favorite Steampunk cowboy hats from around the interwebs.
A big part of the nonfiction Steampunk book I am writing is going to be a series of timelines to help place people, places, events and cultural movements in relation to one another. I am really looking forward to doing this coming up in the Fall, and the first I am working on is about fashion. So as I delve into my research I will be writing a new monthly series that is going to focus on different types of hats. This month will pay homage to the steampunkiest of hats, the Bowler.
As with any mention of a Stetson, Bowler should always be capitalized because it is named after a person, or in this case, persons. The brothers Thomas and William Bowlers first created the hat in 1849. Their task was to create a hat that would protect the head of Edward Coke, the brother of the second Earl of Leicester, and other men who pursued horseback riding and other outdoor gaming in their leisure time. According to the story, when Coke showed up to pick up the hat he stamped on it to test its strength. In later years the Bowler became associated with city gentlemen, and beat out other men’s headgear as the most popular in both the UK and America in the 19th century. By the 21st century, we don’t have many examples of Americans still wearing them, but they are still required garb for many men in England. During the annual military parade, for instance, they are part of the military costume.
In Steampunk circles, it not uncommon to see women sporting a Bowler hat as well, or to see tricked out Bowlers that include goggles or other steamy adornments. I compiled a fun gallery of just a few of the many Bowler hat adaptations out there on the interwebs. Enjoy!