Designer cowboy hats

With the right hat, any ol' city slicker can fit in just fine at the stampede.

Nineteen-forty, Christmas Eve, with the full moon over town,
Stagger Lee shot Billy DeLyon and he blew that poor boy down.
Do you know what he shot him for, what do you make of that?
'Cause Billy DeLyon threw lucky dice, won Stagger Lee's Stetson hat.

Thus the Grateful Dead render the blues standard “Stagger Lee.” There are scores of versions of the song–but most agree on one point: a good cowboy hat is no small thing.

Blame it on John B. Stetson, who started the brand bearing his name in 1865. Until then, the rugged men of the West had nothing better to shade their eyes and protect them from the elements than a narrow-brimmed derby-style hat. “John B. was working in a hat shop back east, and he was a frail person, so they told him to go west,” says Fort Worth, Texas-born master hatter Bill Olsen. “And because the sun was so strong, he found he needed a hat with a wider brim. Every time he put one on, it sold right off his head.”

Since then, people have used Stetson as a generic name for any ol' cowboy hat, but there are other makers, too, including Resistol (the top choice of many), Bailey, Milano, American Hat and Calgary's own Smithbilt, where Olsen now works.

Founded in 1919, Smithbilt makes the white hats that the City of Calgary bestows upon prominent visitors (from Pope John Paul II to Bill Clinton). The tradition began with Mayor Don MacKay, who promoted the white hat as a symbol of the city in 1950. “If you see somebody in a white cowboy hat in Toronto, you know immediately they're from Calgary,” says Don Wilson, the former president of Prudential Steel Ltd. and a past chairman and president of the Calgary Stampede.

And speaking of the Calgary Stampede, with this year's event (which runs from July 8-17) approaching faster than a chuckwagon race, what better time to weigh your cowboy hat options? For summer, straw is best, but for cooler weather, felted fur is the ticket. A fine hat maker will block the fabric to shape and stiffen it before it is lovingly “pounced,” the process that rubs the fur to a fine finish. Then the brim is expertly trained into what Olsen calls the “Howdy, ma'am” roll or a higher curve. “It's the blend of the fur that will make the difference in the wearability and the stiffness,” he says. “Otter is the best, but you can't use otter any more. Beaver is the best that we can use. Most of the opening price points in fur are rabbit, but any time you have beaver, you have a far superior hat.”

Fur hats are graded from about 4X to 100X. Higher numbers generally indicate more beaver, better-grade fibres and a higher-quality finish, although as Olsen points out, “no two companies will make a 5X hat the same; the company sets its own quality standards.” As for Smithbilt? “A lot of the boys who're working in the feedlots really abuse their hats,” Olsen says. “They go up to the 20X; you can run over it, and you still have a hat left.”

Resistol offers a stylish range from the 4X Midnight (about US$140) to the 100X Cattle Baron (US$700). The most popular is its 20X Black Gold (about US$400). “The Black Gold is just a beautiful hat–it's like butter in your hand,” says Doug Lammle, owner of Lammle's Western Wear and Tack, a 22-year-old Calgary institution that bills itself as an official supplier to the Stampede. “When you buy one, it's a lifetime investment. You can trash it and steam it, and it comes back like new.”

Stetson's most successful hat is the 30X El Patron (about US$500); its 100X El Presidente goes for about US$900. Smithbilt's Signature series of beaver hats includes a 20X version ($400) and a 100X version (the top of the standard line at $1,000). Smithbilt can also customize a sable or mink-and-beaver hat with gold buckles and a supple, hand-sewn leather sweatband. “It could go up to $5,000,” says Olsen, “if you wanted all the trimmings.”

Should you be invited to accompany Shania to the Country Music Association Awards, you might want to consider ordering Stetson's ultimate: El Diamante, made of blended chinchilla and beaver, with a diamond-studded, 24-carat gold buckle, for about US$5,000. It's available in black or silver belly, a light beige.

But what would a genuine Calgarian wear? J. C. Anderson owns “six or seven” hats, which he sports around town and on his red Angus cattle ranch south of the city. “Right now we have about 300 females and 10 bulls,” he says. “This year we have about 140 calves; next year we'll have about 250.” He pauses, before adding wryly, “I also run this little oil company,” referring, of course, to his chairmanship of Anderson Energy Ltd.

As for hats? “I guess my real favourite is actually a Bailey,” says the veteran oilman. “It's more or less a white straw, where you could curl the brim pretty spectacularly. It's got a horsehair hatband. This one is stylishly dirty; I've gone through the sweatband and everything.” Anderson is also fond of a felt hat, a Resistol. “It's my Sunday go-to-meeting hat,” he says. “It's a big hat; I'm a big guy.”

Wilson is also a fan of the brand. “Probably my grand choice over the years has been one of the Resistols,” he says. “I have owned Stetsons, and I have some Smithbilts. When I'm going out for a better-quality hat, I would head up to 100X. For regular wear, I'm always probably in the neighbourhood of 30X. The good-quality felts are getting harder to find.”

Cam Clark, owner of Cam Clark Ford, one of the largest car dealerships in Western Canada, lives on a ranch about 25 kilometres west of Airdrie, Alta., where he raises quarter horses. And although he owns both Resistols and Baileys, “I like the Smithbilt hats,” he says. “I like the idea that you can go in and get a hat fitted perfectly and shaped the way you want it, where you can't always do that at any western retailer.” His preferred choice in a fur felt–100X, naturally.

“Last year we had a group of 20 people from Ford plants in Detroit and Oakville visit the dealership,” Clark says. “We presented them with white straw Resistols. For our staff, just this month we gave them the chance to win a brand-new Smithbilt as incentive for sales and service. Our Airdrie Rodeo is at the end of June, so we encourage all our staff to dress western. Of course, the hat would be part of their attire.”

So, if you're an out-of-towner who wants to cut a fine figure at the Calgary Stampede, what should you do? “I'd get a first-class straw: a Resistol, a Bailey, a Stetson,” says Anderson. “You'd want to be cool, so you wouldn't be getting a felt hat.” Clark, on the other hand, would opt for the local product. “I would suggest a Smithbilt hat for sure,” he says. “I think that a 20X for people that don't wear hats too often would be sufficient.” Felt, he adds, might be fine, provided you planned to wear it only in the grandstand–but “you really need straw to keep your head cool if you're riding.”

And Wilson? “The first thing you'd have to do is go to Smithbilt or Lammle's,” he advises, “and buy a proper cowboy hat, and have it properly styled so it fits your size and the shape of your face, with the right roll to the brim, the right shape to the crown.” Our would-be Stampeder, he adds, might also acquire “a checkered shirt and a good pair of Wrangler jeans, and boots if his feet desired. But a hat is most important.” After all, “you'll see people in a business suit with a shirt and a tie on, wearing a hat,” Wilson explains. “There's nothing wrong with that at all.”