Backstory: Over the brim

The cost of one of the world's most recognizable trappings, the cowboy hat, rises as China imports more fur.

Standing in the middle of a dusty barn at the National Western rodeo complex here, Trevor Brazile is clearly the sort of cowboy for whom appearance counts. His Wrangler jeans and plaid shirt are crisp and spotless. His horse and tack are gleaming. And his perfectly fitted cowboy hat - well, that's the item that most defines his image. "I wear it all day, every day. I only take it off for ladies and at dinner," he says with a grin.

It's hard to imagine an emblem of the West more compelling than the cowboy hat. Would the archetype of the cowboy strike the same chord if he were wearing, say, a beret?

If clothing makes the man, surely the wide-brimmed, deep-crowned cowboy hat is the single item of apparel that makes the cowboy. Cowboys - whether the ranch-bred variety or their urban counterparts - readily shell out hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a premium hat.

Now, however, the economics of one of the world's most recognizable trappings are changing. As demand for the fur pelts used to make them increases, prices are climbing - and will ultimately show up on the tags in Western clothing stores. Cowboys and those just dressing the part are being forced to dig deeper into their denims to buy them. One reason: China.

"In China, they're putting rabbit fur on everything right now," says Stan Redding, vice president of sales and marketing for Stetson Hat Co., in Garland, Texas. "Prior to this, we were the biggest consumer of that byproduct. The demand is what's driven up the price."

Prices for European rabbit fur, which is mixed with beaver fur in low- to midrange cowboy hats, have shot up 20 percent. Beaver fur prices also have risen.

None of this seems to have impacted sales - yet. For now, the cowboy hat remains as popular as Heath Ledger. True, there has always been a stable core of cowboy hat buyers. But Western wear has also become fashionable again.

Many people want to copy the look of Bon Jovi or Mary J. Blige. Madonna is a cowboy hat aficionado, as is President Bush when clearing mesquite and cocklebur in Texas. Adding to the cowboy hat mystique is the population boom in the West. As more people buy a ranchette or vacation home, they're increasingly adopting the Western look in their décor and closet.

"Cowboy stuff is hot," says Mr. Redding of Stetson, whose parent company, Hatco Inc., sold over a million cowboy hats last year. "It's urban America wanting a little taste of that cowboy thing."

For authentic cowboys, the ten-gallon hat isn't just a fashion statement: It's a form of shelter. It serves as an umbrella in the rain and sunblock on clear days, as well as protection from the cold, wind, and dust of the range. Consequently, most cowboys want the best hat they can afford.

"You end up saving by buying higher quality," says Diane Bishop, co-owner with her husband, Rick, of Western Tradition, a hat retailer in Mabank, Texas. "The higher quality hats are more durable," she says, a cloud of steam rising around her as she custom-shapes a brim at the National Western Stock Show here.

The Bishops sell Bailey Western hats exclusively. Their best one is made of 100 percent beaver fur felt. With a feel as smooth as velvet, it costs $650. Considering the years of wear it will stand up to, that's considered a bargain. Of course, a hat's longevity depends on how it's treated. "Under normal wear, if you don't run over it with your pickup, you could probably have one of these for your lifetime," says Mrs. Bishop.

Many cowboys are fastidious about what goes on their head. As a three-time world champion roper, Trevor Brazile has achieved the sort of stature that means he doesn't have to buy hats. His sponsor provides them for him. Still, Mr. Brazile, of Decatur, Texas, takes pride in the quality and shape of what he wears. He prefers only 100 percent beaver fur because it makes a hat lighter and thinner, yet holds its shape. He says $1,000 is a fair price to pay for a quality lid.

Cowboy hats have long been a big-ticket item, costing a cowboy a month's wages or more when they were first introduced in the mid-1800s. Today, the most expensive hats are made from beaver pelts, and usually start at around $500. Stetson's most expensive hat, the Diamante, retails for $5,000, and is made from high-grade beaver, plus chinchilla fur.

The best-grade furs are harder to come by these days in part because of global warming. Cold winters produce the downy fur that makes the highest-quality felt. Mild winters in recent years have limited supplies.

Lower-priced hats are made from mostly rabbit fur, with a small percentage of beaver. The quality of fur felt is designated by the "X factor." A 100X hat is made from 100 percent beaver, and a 50X hat is 50 percent beaver fur.

For ranch hands whose hats get dirty and sweat-stained, a 20X hat is popular, because it can be replaced every few years. But the fine texture of beaver fur allows for a tighter weave in the felt, yielding a hat that is both softer and more protective from the elements.

In Old West movies, the good guys wore tall white hats and the villains wore black hats. Nowadays, a black cowboy hat is de rigueur. "Black doesn't show dirt as much," says Bishop, who wears a high-crowned one that contrasts with her flaxen hair. "Everybody has to have a basic black hat."

For Beau Michael, a professional "bronc" rider, the hat definitely matters. Some of it is practical, some psychological. He dons a custom-made black hat (roughly $500) that coordinates with his black cowboy boots and black plaid shirt. "I'm really happy with it," he says, as he lifts it lightly from his head and readjusts it.

Jerry Shepherd, a professional bull rider from Nephi, Utah, takes his penchant for custom hats a step farther. He buys a new one, pure beaver, about every six months. "When you're wearing it all the time when you're riding, it gets pretty beat up," he says. But there's another reason he replaces it. "If I don't stay on a lot of bulls, I get a new hat. It's just one of those mind games I play."

Glen Keller, Jr., director of the Westernaires, a horseback drill team for Denver-area youths, owns several hats, in various colors, which he rotates regularly. "I like to have some color coordination in my life," he says, eyes twinkling behind gold-rimmed glasses.

Today the retired federal judge is wearing black ostrich boots, a black cowboy hat, black jeans, a black-and-white checked shirt, and a white handkerchief knotted on his neck. He looks like Roy Rogers without the grin.

Mr. Keller hasn't purchased a new hat for about five years. He may want to wait five more before buying another. As he recalls it, the last one dented his wallet. "It was a lot of dadgum money," he says.

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