Conjuring the traditional image of Wild West cowboys and outlaws is easy. Typically, they’re shown in leather chaps, a vest, and denim pants, accompanied by boots, spurs, and holsters. Most importantly? There’s a cowboy hat: a tall, wide-brimmed head-covering that’s become synonymous with gun-slinging legends such as Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill, or Hollywood’s John Wayne. Yet surprisingly, many cowboys and outlaws in the Old West (around 1865 to 1900) actually preferred bowler hats. The casual counterpart to the more formal derby hat, the bowler was designed by London hatmakers and commissioned by English nobility. Domed and hardened by shellac, the felt cap was reliable and sturdy; according to some accounts, it was designed for gamekeepers who kept losing their top hats to low-hanging branches.
A world away from lush English estates, the bowler became a natural choice for life in the American West: The hats didn’t fly off in the wind, their durability withstood the elements, and they could be worn for almost any occasion. Favored by the likes of gambler and gunslinger Bat Masterson and the outlaws known as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the bowler hat maintained its hold on the Western frontier until the famous Stetson took over as the hat of choice. With a wider brim to help block the sun — and the boost Buffalo Bill Cody gave the hat after wearing it in his Wild West shows — the “Boss of the Plains” solidly replaced its British predecessor by the end of the 19th century, and became the hat commonly associated with the Old West today.