Illustration by Dave Elston
Q: I attended a western horse event mid-Autumn, and was chided by a rather stylish appearing mature woman for wearing a straw hat in the middle of October. Now, I know the old-time rule: felt is worn between Labour day and the May long weekend, and straw in between, but my question is . . . is it really necessary to abide by this rather outdated – in my mind – fashion statute of western etiquette in the 21st century?
A: Necessity my friend, is a relative term. There are few items in the culture of the West that carry the same iconic weight as the cowboy hat. As an old cowboy saying goes, “It’s the last thing you take off and the first thing that is noticed.” First designed in 1865 by John B. Stetson, the “Boss of the Plains” were originally all felt of some variety, worn by cowboys from the North Saskatchewan all the way to the Rio Grande. Straws and palm leafs followed to add comfort and coolness for those southwestern cowboys working in the Texas Panhandle heat.
As straw hats gained popularity, they were found to be superior in the heat of the summer, protecting from heat and sun while felt hats were generally worn in winter (protecting from moisture and cold). Eventually this evolved and crystalized into the ‘Labour Day/May long weekend’ customary switch. Now, here in Canada, you will see northern cowboys wearing felt on cooler days past the May long weekend or alternatively our southern cousins wearing a straw well past Labour Day. Many working cowboys in Canada wear a felt year round, while a cowpuncher in New Mexico might own only straws or palm leafs.
So, no it’s not necessary.
However, as I stated, necessity is relative. It never hurts to respect long standing western traditions and wearing the correct hat at the correct time of year will help you with that. More important than the felt/straw rule is to pay attention to the manufacture, shape and condition of your hat. Make sure your hat doesn’t look like you drove over it with a skidster. Mud, slop and other organic matter on your hat is not cool and does not make you a real cowboy. Ladies, please try to avoid the ‘bar star’ leopard print and zebra stripe hats with chin strings. For the fellas, the black crushable $9.99 ‘felties’ and the Corona straw beach hats are a ‘no no’ in the real West.
Finally, whether you wear felt or straw, or something else, the cardinal sin is a cowboy hat worn backwards. Frontend front, backend back – and in Alberta, that goes for you too, Premier Notley.
Q: What exactly, do you think John Wayne meant when he said, “Courage is being scared to death – and saddling up anyway?”
A: John Wayne had a way of breathing American realism into English abstraction. Before Hollywood began to influence western culture at the turn of the 20th century, courage was the exclusive realm of gilded knights with pleasant sounding Wessex accents and impeccable manners. Whether it was St. George slaying a dragon or King Arthur with Lancelot and Galahad charging down upon Saxon invaders, courage was a lofty ideal for great men, in a far, far away land.
However, in the early 1900’s, in the New World, in a new continent, and an unfamiliar and dangerous country, a brand-new mythology began to evolve, one shaped by the vast expanse of the American West. Courage was slowly but surely redefined, largely by ordinary men doing ordinary things. Every slouched-back cowpuncher, every bent-back sod buster, every crooked-back card speeler was just as fine a gentlemen as England’s most grand heroes, and equally courageous. Staking a claim in the Klondike, maintaining a trap line off the North Saskatchewan, saddling a green colt in the Texas Panhandle, or even stepping one foot from civilization into the abyss of endless prairie to do anything, simply anything at all, alone, took courage. The West didn’t change the idea of courage – it individualized it, as it individualized most everything. Every man who climbed into a saddle, and most men climbed into a saddle every day, faced some version of personal risk. Being scared, and saddling up anyway, was a necessity to life in the American West. It was okay to be scared, you saddled up nonetheless, and that took courage.
Today the analogy of “saddling up” is all but lost to the modern urbanized hipster, irrespective of the frontier beard and woodsman flannel. Yet the idea that courage is not some high falutin’ ideal from folklore, but instead is real, and dirty and smells of rust and sweat and is both ordinary and exceptional at the same time – that lives on. And we can thank John Wayne for it.
Have a question for Doc West burning in your back pocket? We welcome you to direct it to firstname.lastname@example.org.