All Western stars knew this. It was why, when they got a hat they liked and it just suited and fitted, they hung onto it through picture after picture.
Charlton Heston, talking about Will Penny:
And talking of Heston Westerns, you will remember the bit in The Big Country where he takes one look at Eastern dude Gregory Peck's hat and advises him not to wear it on the ranch. Hats here are a way of fitting in, almost a sign of manhood.
James Stewart was as fond of his hat as he was of his horse Pie. It was a pretty beat-up, sweat-stained affair, that hat, a sorry-looking item to be sure. But it suited him perfectly and was part of Stewart as Western star. When he abandoned it in Shenandoah, it ruined the film. (Well, Shenandoah wasn’t very good but I will grudgingly admit that there may just have been other reasons than headgear for that).
Naturally there were many hatters in the West and many brands of hat but of them all the Stetson seems to have claimed pride of place. To many people, Stetson and cowboy hat are synonymous. While panning for gold in Colorado in the 1860s, John B Stetson created a hard-wearing hat for himself made from thick beaver felt. Although he wore it first as a joke, Stetson soon grew fond of the hat for its ability to protect him from the elements. Its wide brim protected him from the weather and the high crown kept an insulating pocket of air on the head. He even used it to carry water. So do I: when walking my dog Wyatt on a hot day I carry a bottle of water and give him a drink out of my hat. He likes it and it cools my head when I put the hat back on.
Reader Bob says that his favorite cowboy hats of all are:
Richard Boone’s Paladin hat, Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday hat; the hats Kirk Douglas wore in Last Train From Gun Hill and Gunfight at the OK Corral; and, of course, Buffalo Bill Cody’s hat.
An excellent choice.
Clearly the classic wide-brimmed cowboy hat was influenced by the Mexican sombrero. A high crown gave insulation and a broad brim gave shade. If you look at a picture like The Avenger, with Buck Jones, you can see the cross-over Mexican/cowboy effect.
Hats followed fashion and developed, though. Think of those huge ten-gallon affairs worn by the cowboys of the silver screen in the 1920s, right through into the 40s. Some of them were plain silly, but the actors felt obliged to wear them. Look at Tim McCoy, for example. Later on Stetsons became rather more restrained. It was noticeable that in the 1960s brims got smaller and more curled. Like Horst Buchholz as Chico in The Magnificent Seven.
Of course there is the old cliché about the goodies wearing white hats and the baddies wearing black ones. It’s still trotted out today and you can still identify a villain by calling him a ’black hat’. It was always nonsense. Hopalong Cassidy dressed in black and he was no baddy. Perish the thought. Tom Mix appeared in black hats quite often. Black hats improved contrast in black & white movies.
One of the great tragedies of that lovely movie Silverado was the decision by director Kasdan to cut out the scene where Kevin Kline, having just shot a man who had stolen his hat (fair enough), kicks up the headgear from the floor in a saloon with the toe of his boot and it lands on his head. Is that cool or what? Luckily you can see it in an out-take on the DVD.