Boss of the Plains Hat , Stetson Worldwide, 2018, designed 1865. Courtesy of Stetson Worldwide. Photographed by Aanchal Bakshi for NYU Costume Studies, 2018. Image © Aanchal Bakshi.

Boss of the Plains Hat, Stetson Worldwide, 2018, designed 1865. Courtesy of Stetson Worldwide. Photographed by Aanchal Bakshi for NYU Costume Studies, 2018. Image © Aanchal Bakshi.

What’s In A Name

The concept of authenticity is ingrained into the American West. But while the region’s evolving urban landscape has at times struggled to maintain its sense of validity, Stetson has succeeded in preserving its estimable reputation. In 1865, John B. Stetson invented the original cowboy hat, which was later marketed by the company as the Boss of the Plains. The hat’s wide brim and open crown, which were constructed out of waterproof fur felt, were a direct response to the region’s harsh environment. Westerners, from a variety of classes and occupations, adopted the functional accessory and the iconic design became synonymous with the area. Soon, hats of similar styles were being referred to as “Stetsons”— regardless of their maker. The five hats on display illustrate how Stetson’s collective image has shifted throughout time. Of the two Boss of the Plains hats on display, the modern iteration exemplifies a more typical cowboy shape. A felted-wool fabrication after the original Boss of the Plains hat, known as Austral, shows how silhouettes evolved within the company, while a 2018 baseball hat reminds viewers of the potential power of a brand name. Finally, a miniature plastic Stetson hat, which served as a gift certificate that could be traded in for an actual hat, elicits further questions as to what qualifies as a real Stetson hat. Style, material, and contemporary customer preference are all critical factors, yet when it comes to what defines authenticity, one true answer may not exist.

Exhibition Objects

Stetson (American, founded 1865), Boss of the Plains Hat, 1920s, Fur felt, leather, and horsehair Courtesy of Arizona History Museum

Stetson (American, founded 1865), Boss of the Plains Hat, 2018, Fur felt and leather Courtesy of Stetson Worldwide

Stetson (American, founded 1865), Austral Hat, 2018, Wool felt, leather, and grosgrain ribbon Courtesy of Stetson Worldwide

Stetson (American, founded 1865), Flat Bill Cap, 2018, Wool blend, faux leather, and cotton thread Courtesy of Marisa Lujan

Stetson (American, founded 1865), Gift Certificate Sample Hat and Accompanying Box, 1950s, Plastic and metal Courtesy of Marisa Lujan