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King of the cowboy hats.

The world divides into people who can wear cowboy hats and people who can't. People who can wear cowboy hats snap on a Stetson and, even if they're accountants from Sherman Oaks, begin to swagger like John Wayne. They acquire a rolling gait and give the impression of owning a spread along the Bighorn. The second group -- and I am one of them -- tends to resemble the cast of a bad high-school production of Oklahoma! We lack authenticity. Real cowboys have a phrase for us: all hat, no cattle.

That is a particular sorrow to me, because the cowboy hat is a hat of unusual eloquence. No hat -- except maybe a bishop's miter -- expresses such earned authority, and no other hat connotes the high plains and the smell of sagebrush and a life lived with lonely integrity. The cowboy hat's history goes back to the 1860s, when its form was standardized by John B. Stetson's Boss of the Plains model. Since then it has cast a ten-gallon shadow across the West and the world.

Up in Billings, Montana, Ritch Rand wears a cowboy hat the way Cal Ripken, Jr., wears an Orioles uniform. That's a good thing, because Rand is one of the West's premier custom cowboy hatters, his Billings store a temple to the pencil-rolled brim, the cattleman's crease, and fur felt macerated into something approaching art.

"We do about 500 hats a month," Rand says. He talks down to me: at 6 feet 8 inches, he talks down to almost everyone. Rand's height, along with a black, luxuriantly drooping mustache, gives him the look of a tough sheriff with a poetic streak. "We've done hats for `Gunsmoke,' for `Return to Lonesome Dove,' for Maverick. Mel Gibson is a regular customer of ours."

Rand makes hats for a lot of working cowboys, too, more or less the way he would have made them in the 19th century. The cowboy hat starts with felt made from animal fur: Quality hats feature felt made from beaver, even mink. Cheaper hats come from rabbit. (Felt quality is measured in Xs; for example, a 30X hat has more beaver fur than a 10X. It's also the chief determinant of price, which, for Rand's hats, starts around $230 and can run as high as $700.)

To ensure a good fit -- tight, so the hat won't fly off in a strong prairie wind -- Rand gives the outside of your head a lot more attention than it's used to. First comes a tape measure.

"You're between sizes," Rand tells me. "Seven and a quarter and seven and three-eighths."

Rand then brings out the conformateur, which looks like the offspring of a homburg and a manual typewriter. The conformateur, used by 19th-century hatmakers (Rand's four conformateurs are all more than 100 years old), is pressed down upon you to produce a paper template of your skull in all its imperfection.

"My head is lopsided," I say when Rand shows me my template.

"A lot of people's are," he says. "There are some really odd-shaped heads out there."

I had mentioned my cowboy hat problem to Rand, and now he seems to take it as a challenge to find a style that doesn't make me look stupid. "The most important thing is brim width," he says. "Not too wide for the face. You don't want to look like the Flying Nun."

Even after you agree, no nun, you have a lot of choices to make: crown height, creases, and dents; brim rolled or flat; color white, tan, silver, or black -- black accounting for 80 percent of the hats Rand sells. "This is our cattleman " Rand says, "with the traditional cattleman's crease -- down the center with two dents on either side. This is the Tom Horn: 6-inch crown with a 4-inch brim. Augustus McCrae wore one on `Lonesome Dove.' It's still our most popular hat." He sets the Tom Horn on my head.

"Nope," he says.

Rand himself wears a range of hats -- he has about 100 in his closet. And he knows firsthand the challenges the cowboy hat faces in the '90s. His new book, The Cowboy Hat Book, offers advice for coping in a world more cramped than the one for which the cowboy hat was designed. "Like what to do with your hat on an airplane," Rand says. "It's a dilemma. The seat backs are too high to let you wear it, but if you put it in the overhead bin somebody's going to put their cosmetic case on it." Rand's answer: rest the hat on your knee. Otherwise, Rand says, wear your cowboy hat everywhere except the barbershop and church. "The proper place for a cowboy hat is on the head."

After some debate, we settle on a walnut brown chaparral with packer brim and mountain cavalry crease. So far I wear it mainly inside, among friends. Its authority is still tentative. But it's a fine hat, and I like admiring it. When I put it on, I have some cattle, and a horse, and a spread up past the Bighorn, if only in my dreams.
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Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Fish, Peter
Date:Dec 1, 1995
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