As his boots struck 1860s Texan soil for the first time, agitating its hot dust as they did so, little did John Batterson Stetson know that the hat he invented would achieve iconic status. Like many New Jersey residents, his reasons for venturing west was primarily health-related. The fact that he was also a hat manufacturer was incidental.
Early Texan cowboys driving longhorn cattle north found Mexican sombreros weighty, and the alternative - cheap American-made hats with floppy brims made from wool that would not stiffen - was undignified and uncomfortable. The demand for a better-quality "hair case" (Texas-speak for hat) inspired Stetson to set up a factory in Philadelphia to manufacture what he called the 10-gallon hat (named for its size and durability).
Stetson's reputation shot throughout the States faster than a fusillade of bullets, and made him a multi-millionaire. Regional and individual tastes spawned some distinctive variations, particularly in the shape of the Stetson's crease. You could get a Montana (very peaky), a centrefire (exactly in the middle), or a cattleman (shallow and wide as a plain). Brims could be rodeo, ranch, snap, or Aussie-style.
Today, far more "pilgrims" (non-cowboys) wear Stetsons than real cowhands. Apart from James Dean, the Stetson's most obvious association is with the Dallas posse, the most enthusiastic fan being JR Ewing as the owner of the biggest John B west of the Red River. Americans who favour Stetsons are expressing a fondness for a time when a languid journey on horseback, a slurp of "neck oil" (whiskey), a fiddle of the trigger and a visit to the hookshop epitomised the simple life.
Back in the UK, as a summer alternative to the usual canvas sun-hat, you can't beat the 10-gallon for hip value. Coupled with a string bikini and a stomach smoother than a brown saddle, it adds sex appeal while offering sun protection to your head, neck and shoulders.
Authentic cowboy hats can be had from The Hat Shop (0171-836 6718) in felt for around pounds 17, and in straw for only pounds 2.95. RM Williams do them Aussie-style (0171-629 6222). If you find the traditional felt too sweaty - the originals were made from rabbit or beaver felt - Rachel Trevor-Morgan (0171-839 8927) offers a breezier made-to-order version in straw for pounds 190.
Before you go galloping off to the beach with your Stetson, remember this: like Ronald Reagan, JR Ewing et al, you are contributing to a legacy. Thanks to the Stetson's worldwide reputation, real cowhands are rejecting theirs by the 10-gallon. Recently, a tourist asked a cowboy in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, why he wore a baseball cap. Presumably thinking of Thelma and Louise, he drawled: "Don't wanna look like a truck driver."
Two tone Italian straw stetson, pounds 190, by Rachel Trevor-Morgan, available from 18 Crown Passage, King Street, London SW1; ring first on 0171-839 8927. Photograph: Mark J CurtisReuse content