Creative customization takes a typical Western hat to new highs, bringing flair to everyday fashion and beyond.
By Kate Bradley Byars
Western fashion has long ridden the highs and lows that accompany mainstream trends, but lately, it’s seen record popularity. From the Old West-shaped hats adorning the heads of spectators at the National Finals Rodeo and Yellowstone fans who might have never swung a leg over a horse, to the uniquely personal, yet traditional, hats atop the heads of APHA world champions, favorite styles for topping off favorite outfits is a never-ending evolution of style.
Hatmaker JW Brooks of JW Brooks Hat Company in Lipan, Texas, will tell you nothing is brand-new in the hat world—it’s all comes back around. Yet, willingness to try something new has shaped the latest trend: putting as much of a custom spin on a hat as possible.
“I started with O’Farrell Hat Company in 1991 in Durango, Colorado, right out of high school and stayed with it. It’s been 32 years,” JW said. “I went through the ’90s, which saw a huge upswing in country music and country everything, then it slowed down a bit. Since COVID, with people getting back out and outside, there has been a big push for the Western industry. I’ve seen mainstream fashion bring hats into the industry here and there, but right now it is holding in there.”
Whether you’re after a truly custom hat in size, shape and color, or a personal touch added later, personal style leads buyers down the path that’s right for them.
Old is New Again
The horse-show pen is no stranger to colorful felt hats. While some see color as a newer trend, it truly has deep roots in Western fashion. In fact, JW says many of the “new” colors have been around for more than 30 years.
“Colors have come back in style with the uptick in Western fashion,” he said. “When the rest of the world isn’t interested in the Western industry, you’ll sell the black, silver belly, brown, tan hats to the people who are the staple of our industry, the ranchers and the cattlemen and the horse people. It’s straightforward.
“As Western wear grows, you have those people that want to stand out, and so your colors swing up into the color palette that has been available to us for the last 30 years. I used to not make 50 percent of the colors we are making today, but all the sudden, hats are popular. People want to be unique, so color is back in—rust, green, navy.”
The same is true for a hat’s shape. While Yellowstone might have shown people a few trendy styles—just like Robert Duvall’s “Gus” from Lonesome Dove did in the early 1990s—they are not new. But these shapes, such as the pinch front, buckaroo and open crown, are seeing a resurgence across all age groups. Kendall Clinton of Kendall Co. Vintage, says that resurgence both helped and hindered the business she launched in 2019.
“When I first started in 2018, I bought used hats, vintage, at antique markets, eBay, [Facebook] Marketplace and any used,” said Kendall, whose business is based in Bulverde, Texas. “I wanted to go the vintage route and give old hats new life. I was very successful finding that. I had two types of clients: [those wanting] true Western hats and fashion hats. I do my research, follow different influencers to see what they are wearing, then I start digging for hats and items to customize. But this niche has blown up! You cannot find those used Stetsons for $70 or $80; now they’re $150. I go to a lot of thrift stores, and their junk is my treasure!”
The “true Western” hat shapes, as Kendall calls them, are the classics—think the cattleman-style hat. It’s a mainstay in the horse-show pen, but riders there are also welcoming hats of different colors and those with embellishments.
“What you’re seeing in fashion—the Nevada flats and the Gus and other older shapes—those don’t cross into the show pen,” said Jody Brooks, a ranch horse competitor and JW’s partner in the company. “The show pen uses a traditional cowboy hat unless you see a rancher-type shape.”
Yet, the staunchest of showmen and -women are letting their personal style show in classy and unique ways.
“There is nothing that we are doing that technically hasn’t been done before, even in the styles of the hats, the shapes or the different adornments like embroidery or buck stitching. It’s all been done before, but we are bringing it back into the light,” JW said.
This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Spring 2023 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.