It’s been 150 years since John B. Stetson launched the company whose hats have become an icon of the American West.
It was 35 years ago that Urban Cowboy made mechanical bull riding and “kicker” dancing a craze; Gilley’s in Pasadena, Texas, a landmark destination honky-tonk; and cowboy hats, boots, and big belt buckles a fashion trend. Credit Sissy (Debra Winger) in her brown Stetson and Bud (John Travolta) in his big black one with helping to put the shock paddles to the heart of Westernwear.
“Today, half the country would like to be a cowboy, while the other half would like to look like one,” Travolta said in Urban Cowboy’s publicity at the time. It was yet another realization that there was indeed a lot of truth to the old cowboy saying: Your hat is the last thing you take off and the first thing that gets noticed.
To celebrate the 35th anniversary of the movie, Mickey Gilley, who co-owned the original club where Bud and Sissy met, and Johnny Lee teamed up for reunion concerts; CMT ran the documentary Urban Cowboy: The Rise and Fall of Gilley’s; and Texas Monthly put a neon-surrounded Travolta on its cover.
Nothing wrong with all that hoopla, but we’re breaking out the party hats to commemorate a much older and more important anniversary: Stetson Hats’ 150th. From quintessential screen cowboys such as Tom Mix and John Wayne to leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan to country singers like Hank Williams and Garth Brooks, a Stetson has long been the go-to hat for both the natty celebrity and the true cowboy.
And it’s been that way practically since John B. Stetson handcrafted his first hat in the early 1860s in a battle with the wilderness. What originally began as an attempt to weatherproof himself with a big brimmed hat on the Western plains has become a great American success story and a potent symbol of Americana. One hundred fifty years later, it’s like Coke or Kleenex — a name known around the world that’s come to mean not just the brand but the thing itself. Stetson equals cowboy hat.
That fact is not lost on Hollywood. It would probably be easier to say who hasn’t worn a Stetson than to name-check every actor who has. It’s been the scene-stealing hat in more films and television shows than you can count, from first cowboy superstar Tom Mix’s huge-hatted heros in early 1900s silver screen westerns to Jeff Bridges’ Bad Blake in Crazy Heart (2009) and the late Larry Hagman’s J.R. Ewing in Dallas, both the original (1978 – 91) and the revival TV series (2012 – 14).
But a Stetson’s so much more than a potent film prop.
“Stetson isn’t only great because of who has worn them,” says Ricky Bolin, a former professional bull rider and current general manager of Hatco, which manufactures Stetson Hats in Garland, Texas. “Stetson is also great because they’ve been made in America continuously for the last 150 years following the same principles laid out all that time ago. We still follow them today.”
You may know the famous story about when and how those principles originated. Born in New Jersey in 1830, John Batterson Stetson learned about hatmaking from his father, a hatter who had a successful company called the No Name Hat Company. When Stetson got tuberculosis in his 20s, he went west both to improve his health and to mine for gold. The West did wonders for his health, but while he managed to reach Pikes Peak in Colorado, he didn’t find his fortune. What he did find was a big idea: a market out West putting hats on the heads of pioneers traveling out in the elements. He figured a lightweight fur felt hat might be just the thing.
He had some anecdotal evidence from his own frontier experience. On the Pikes Peak expedition, instead of using untanned, often putrid, animal skins for warmth and shelter like the other gold seekers did, Stetson made himself blankets, a tent, and a broad-brimmed hat from felted fur shavings. When, later in his travels, a cowboy bought his distinctive hat right off his head for a $5 gold piece, Stetson knew he was onto something.
In 1865, he moved to Philadelphia, borrowed money from his sister to get set up, and launched his own hatmaking company. In 1869, he re-created the hat he sold to the cowboy and started marketing the newly minted “Boss of the Plains” for $5 retail.
And the rest is cowboy hat history.
Stetson would become well-known as a hatmaking magnate whose name was synonymous with not just quality but also durability and beauty. The company itself was as innovative as the hats and won many an award. As an owner, Stetson was known for caring for his employees (archival photos show factory workers in front of the Philly plant holding Thanksgiving turkeys gifted by the company); as a philanthropist, for giving generously. He gave such substantial gifts to the University of DeLand, near his vacation home in Florida, that it was renamed John B. Stetson University in 1889 (later changed to Stetson University). The Hatters continue to honor their benefactor with the school’s Stetson-wearing cowboy mascot, “John B.”
Stetson’s craftsmanship could already be seen making its way to celebrity stardom in the 1880s in William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West show. Cody, who liked to look the snazzy part, usually wore a broad-brimmed Stetson, both while performing and in his private life. Annie Oakley wore one, too. In Wild West publicity, they’re always pictured in their hats.
Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Dale Evans all wore Stetsons. And if he was properly put together, so did Mr. Potato Head.
Ditto Django. A spaghetti western-inspired Quentin Tarantino film set in the Old West and antebellum South, Django Unchained takes place just years before Stetson founded his hat company. So it’s probably fitting that Django, played by Jamie Foxx, donned a singular Stetson in the 2012 film. The award-winning film’s costume designer, Sharen Davis, worked with the company to select just the right hat for the main character.
For decades, Stetson has provided thousands of dollars’ worth of handmade hats for hundreds of films, but Django Unchained proved to be a unique experience. Matthew Range, marketing director for Hatco, often spends hours researching the historical time period for a particular film to provide filmmakers with authentic choices. For Django Unchained, however, Davis and Tarantino were more concerned about selecting a hat that fit the character than the time period.
“They definitely had a specific look in mind,” Range recalls. They wanted it patterned after the hat worn by Michael Landon as Little Joe in Bonanza. The hat that was eventually selected wasn’t wool, but it worked fabulously for Foxx’s character and helped set the visual tone that earned the film a nomination from the Art Directors Guild for Excellence in Production Design for a Period Film. It’s gratifying for Range. “It’s satisfying to see the character on-screen and feel a little bit of pride that you helped complete the overall look.”
Besides researching the historical era, Range will work with costume designers to find out if the character wearing a Stetson is well-off or down on his luck; he’ll also inquire about the location of the film and the time of year it takes place. But practicalities like, say, not fitting a cowboy with a black fur hat for a summertime scene in South Texas, weren’t really the foremost consideration for director Jon Favreau in Cowboys & Aliens. Rather than have custom-shaped hats shipped to the set for Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford (who, by the way, wears a Stetson fedora in the Indiana Jones series), Favreau and costume designer Mary Zophres (No Country for Old Men) hired a hat shaper, and Range sent them open crown hats with flat brims that could be easily creased and shaped as the filmmakers saw fit.
Dallas Buyers Club, starring Matthew McConaughey, was more concerned about getting the hat exactly right. Director Jean-Marc Vallée wanted to remain as authentic as possible and relied on Stetson to determine that they needed a style with a taller crown to make McConaughey look like a professional bull rider from that era. “We always try to understand the character — where he came from and the time frame that movie takes place,” Range says, “so everything can be as authentic as possible.”
From Gunsmoke and Bonanza to Wyatt Earp and Tombstone, Stetson has played a vital role in countless westerns. What would Midnight Cowboy, Silverado, Killer Joe, True Grit, and The Lone Ranger (both the TV series with Clayton Moore and Disney’s recent big-screen adventure with Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp) have been without the hats? And not just westerns. Michael J. Fox wore a Stetson in Back to the Future III, and Snoop Dogg and Alan Jackson often wear Stetsons in their music videos and photo shoots. It’s such an institution, on-screen and off, that a black Tyler-style Stetson worn by Garth Brooks is actually in the Smithsonian Institution.
The list could go on and on, but as impressive as it is to reel off Stetson’s film and celebrity credits, for Bolin, that misses the point. It’s not because of the names you can drop that John Wayne once proclaimed Stetson “the hat that won the West.” Bolin knows what The Duke knew: Quality and craftsmanship are what made the hat a star in the first place.
“I’m 20 feet away from the factory,” Bolin says. “I go down on the factory floor and see people who have been working there almost as long as I’ve been alive. We have one gentleman who’s been with the company over 50 years. These aren’t factory workers. These are craftspeople.”
From the October 2015 issue.