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Western Fashion: Head to Toe

Chapter 2
HATS

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A well-shaped hat flatters horse and rider and adds personality to their show presentation. Shown: Western Pleasure Hat
By
Suzanne Vlietstra
Hobby Horse Clothing Co. Inc.
How do you create a winning look in the show ring? Simply put, by planning. Great performances don't happen accidentally: they're scripted, rehearsed, and polished long before being presented to the judge.

From head-to-toe and poll-to-hoof, you can improve your placings and performance in horse shows by planning ahead. Hobby Horse’s Western Fashion Head to Toe series will help you plan, and get Ready-to-Win!

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 like hat bands can vary tremendously, hats appropriate for western competition fall into these two groups. And although safety helmets are legal for use in most western show events, no manufacturer has yet made a western safety helmet that passes stringent testing for safety equipment in a completely traditional western hat silhouette, so we will focus on traditional western hats in this article.

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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. Shown: Western Treasure Hat
Felt Hats

Felt hats are made from a blend of various animal fur fibers which may include sheep's wool, beaver, angora rabbit or hare, even 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 (pricier) western felt hats contain a high percentage of fur fibers like beaver, which have many more hooks than, say, wool, so the resulting fur felt is much denser, smoother, and repellent than a wool felt 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 will display as a badge of quality.

Beware, though: X designations aren't regulated, so one manufacturer's 20X hat may be the quality of another company's 10X. As well, similar hats from the same manufacturer may have tremendous variation in smoothness, body and integrity-try several hats if you can to compare.

Felt hats should cleaned with a soft horsehair hat brush that gently whisks dust off the hat after each wearing. Store the hat in a box or hat carrier, in a cool location, with a plastic bag loosely around the hat so it can breathe. Handle the hat with your fingers on the external band only; don’t pull on the brim to settle the hat on your head.

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Better western hats really are better-they hold their shape longer, repel dirt and moisture, and look, simply, more beautiful. Shown: Western Pleasure Hat
Straw Hats

“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 are 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 create comfortable built-in ventilation for hot weather. Today’s fashion western straws may also blend different colors of fibers to creative beautiful geometric patterns in the finished hat.

All straws have a wire woven into the outside edge of the brim to allow for gentle hand shaping of the brim. Straw hat crown shapes are shaped and shellacked at the factory and, unlike felt hats, can't easily be modified: 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.

FREE DOWNLOAD! It's show time... and time to look at what to wear this year. Use Hobby Horse's FREE Personal Fashion Worksheet to vet your wardrobe and get Ready-to-Win!


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Subtle differences in quality, shape, and style make your western hat an absolute billboard for the person under the brim. Have fun with your hat choices!
Hats can vary in price from around $60 for a decent straw to $1,000 for a 100X fur felt. When shopping for a hat, consider:

  1. Color: Black hats always look nice with black chaps, but can cast a harsh, unflattering shadow over the rider's face. Consider a pale neutral felt hat to add more light and interest around your face.

    Neutral hats come in cool, grayish shades like platinum or crystal that look best worn with bright jewel colors like purple or red, or warm golden tone hats like buckskin or sand that look best with earthy shades of apparel-rust, beiges, and so on. Brightly colored hats to match chaps come and go in popularity and are usually custom-made to match the outfit.

  2. Style: a basic cattleman's crown with a 4" to 4 1/2" brim is quite standard these days, but women with smaller faces and children may consider having their brim trimmed by about 1/4". Full size brims are designed for men, and may make overpower smaller faces. A little judicious trimming and shaping can make a flattering world of difference in a hat.

    Many of today's fashion western hats feature artistic trims including whip-stitching around the brim, crystals applied, overlay materials under the brim, and custom airbrushed designs. While your hat should delight you and be as personal as you like, elaborately decorated hats are not as versatile as a well-shaped traditional topper.

  3. Care: even the finest hats will look dreadful if you don't take care of them. Learn how to put your hat on, never touching the delicate brim, and also how to clean it with a curved-handle soft hat brush. Invest in a good hat case, and never leave your hat in a hot car or horse trailer in a plastic bag-it can heat warp and look like a tortilla chip!

  4. Sourcing: it's imperative to buy your western hats from an experienced retailer who is familiar with the nuances of the type of show riding you plan to do. Expect to have your hat shaped and tuned-up from time to time, especially if it is shipped to you. Find hat experts at horse shows, trade fairs, and western stores that are serious about selling- and servicing- hats.
    • A note about hat shipping hats: it's very expensive. Shipping a western hat is, to the freight carrier, like shipping an expensive box of air because the boxes are bulky and the hats weigh very little. You may get shipping shock when you get a freight quote on a boxed hat, especially if it's expedited handling which can cost as much as the hat!




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Both hat choices are appropriate, and both blend nicely with the rider's outfit. Which one do you think creates a more pleasing impression?
Hat Tricks:

  1. Tall riders can shorten their look with a dark hat.
  2. Short riders can lengthen their look with a pale hat.
  3. Hat shape, color, and size affect the final look.
  4. Overhead lighting will exaggerate hat shadows on your face.
  5. Certain outfits beg for a particular hat-compare and be creative!
  6. Before your next show, have a 'dress rehearsal' to try different hats with your outfits to choose the look that's best.


Next: Chapter 3 - Blouses, Tops and Shirts


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© 2017 Suzanne Vlietstra
Hobby Horse Clothing Co. Inc.

About the Author: Suzanne Vlietstra is a horse parent, show clothing designer, boarding stable owner, and writer. Her current horsehold includes a Haflinger and a pinto pony. Comments? Reach her at suzi@hobbyhorseinc.com