Western Horse Show Fashion Clinic 3: Western Hats 101

How do you create a winning look? Simply put, by planning. Great performances don’t happen accidentally. They’re scripted, rehearsed, and polished long before they’re presented to the judge. From head-to-toe and poll-to-hoof, you can improve your placings and performance by planning ahead.

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Let’s begin to create your winning wardrobe by giving your western hat a good, long look. Hats are like the cherry on top of an ice cream sundae: they add flair and character to your wardrobe, and finish off your look. Your hat should fit comfortably and stay on in a stiff breeze, and it should flatter your facial structure, as well as punctuating the rest of your outfit. Hats also declare whether you’re a real horseman or a “wannabe.” Subtle differences in quality, shape, and maintenance make your western hat an absolute billboard for the person under the brim.

Western hats are of two basic types: felt or straw. Though sizes, colors, shapes, and trims can vary tremendously, hats appropriate for Western competition fall into these two groups. Though safety helmets are legal for use in most Western show events, no manufacturer has yet made a Western safety hat that combines both impact resistance and a classic Western silhouette, so we will focus on traditional Western hats in this article.

Felt hats are made from a blend of various animal fur fibers which may include sheep’s wool, beaver, angora rabbit, and chinchilla. Making felt for a hat is similar to accidentally washing a wool sweater in your washing machine: fibers are agitated under heat and pressure, and the tiny barbs that exist along the animal fur fibers lock or “felt” together. Prestige Western felt hats contain a high percentage of fur fibers like beaver, which have many more hooks than, say, wool, so the resulting felt is much denser, smoother, and repellent than a wool hat. Better felt hats really are better–they hold their shape longer, repel dirt and moisture, and look, simply, more expensive.

Felt hat quality is denoted by X’s–the higher the percentage of expensive fur in the felt blend, the more X’s the hat’s interior sweatband displays as a badge of quality. Beware, though: X designations aren’t regulated, so one manufacturer’s 20X may be the quality of another company’s 7X. As well, similar hats from the same manufacturer may have tremendous variation in smoothness, body, and integrity–try several if you can to compare.

Straw hats are rarely made from straw these days–they’re almost always woven from finely processed paper fibers that are woven into a variety of hat styles. Straw hats, whose relative quality is usually denoted by X’s (although sometimes by stars) are more expensive when they’re made from very tiny fibers that take longer to weave. Different designs are woven into the crown to create decorative vents, which not only add interest to the hat but also make for built-in comfort in hot weather.

All straws have a wire woven into the outside edge of the brim to allow for gentle hand shaping of the brim, but straw hat crown shapes are shaped and shellacked at the factory and can’t easily be modified, so buy what you like and don’t plan to change your straw’s shape much. Straws can be cleaned by gently wiping them with a damp cloth, but once sweat stains show on the outside of your straw, it’s time for a new one. Straws are always considered more casual than felts, and are worn primarily in spring and summer or humid climates.

Next part > Western Hat Shopping > Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12

Writing or riding, Suzanne Drnec enjoys horses and their people. Drnec is president of Hobby Horse Clothing Company, a show apparel manufacturer, and also the caretaker of an assortment of lawn ornaments including two Paints, a Quarter Horse and an antique Arabian.

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