During his Oscar-nominated performance in Murphy’s Romance, James Garner mentors two younger patrons in an Arizona general store concerning cowboy hats. “It doesn’t matter how you bend it. It’s how you wear it,” he explains. Worn on the back of the head means you like people. Tipped on the side, you’re a rooster looking for a young lady or a fight. Worn square and down on the forehead says, “ ‘Get off the sidewalk and clear a path, ’cuz you’re cocked and ready to fire.”
According to Heather Harding, of AzTex Hat Co. in Scottsdale, he should have added a few other qualities, such as the style of hat (the cowboy genre comprises many) and where it will be worn (they are seen everywhere from golf courses to boardrooms now) as well as your size, height and shape. AzTex has been putting real cowpokes and would-be wranglers together with hats for the past 35 years.
Fashions have changed over the years, but the traditional shape is the rancher, a wide-brim hat with a creased crown. Another perennial is what Harding calls a wind cutter, synonymous with John Wayne and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It has a pinched crown and comes to a teardrop point in front. The J.R. Ewing/Charlie Daniels look, with a high-rise façade, has fallen out of favor, especially when paired with an exaggerated band decoration. An emerging style is the gambler, a short crown hat, popularized by Denzel Washington in the remake of The Magnificent Seven. AzTex carries a range of looks you’ll likely find familiar, both from brands like Stetson and Resistol and their own custom creation, which can be ordered from scratch.
Once you decide what cowboy you want to emulate, think about what you’ll look like when you put it on your head. A lot of that depends on your height, size and head shape, says Harding. A general rule is big man/wide brim and vice versa. AzTex will walk you through the niceties. “Pick up the phone and call,” she says. “We don’t want to put people in more hat than they can wear.”
While AzTex hats are popular with urban cowboys, they are durable enough for riding the range. Even with mishaps, says Harding, like being poked by a low-hanging mesquite, “They just wear.” Which is part of the charm. The hat maker will even distress new hats to make them look worn. After all, she adds, some customers “don’t want to look like they’re walking out in a brand new hat.” Even so, Harding suggests bringing your hat back to be cleaned and refurbished occasionally—every 20 to 30 years.
Their highest grade hat is made from waterproof fur felt and can run as high as a thousand dollars, but you can economize with wool felt or even go less expensive with a straw hat, popular with golfers. Whatever you decide, best tip it back on your head.