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Western Show Apparel - Hats!

Suzanne Drnec, Hobby Horse

How do you create a winning show look? 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 by planning ahead.

Let's begin to create your winning show 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 bands can vary tremendously, hats appropriate for western competition fall into these two groups. Though safety helmets are legal for use in most western show events, no manufacturer has yet made a western safety hat that combines both impact resistance and a classic western silhouette, so we will focus on traditional western hats in this article.

Felt hats are made from a blend of various animal fur fibers which may include sheep's wool, beaver, angora rabbit, and 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 western felt hats contain a high percentage of fur fibers like beaver, which have many more hooks than, say, wool, so the resulting felt is much denser, smoother, and repellent than a wool 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 may be the quality of another company's 7X. As well, similar hats from the same manufacturer may have tremendous variation in smoothness, body and integrity-try several if you can to compare.

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 make for built-in ventilation comfort in hot weather.

All straws have a wire woven into the outside edge of the brim to allow for gentle hand shaping of the brim, but straw hat crown shapes are shaped and shellacked at the factory and 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.

Hats can vary in price from around $40 for a decent straw to $1,000 for a 100X Stetson. When shopping for a western show 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 tones like buckskin or sand that look best with earthy shades-rust, beiges, and so on. Brightly colored hats to match chaps aren't popular in the show ring these days, though you may see them on the pages of fashion magazines.

2. Style: a basic cattleman's crown with a 4" brim is pretty standard these days, but women with smaller faces and children should certainly consider having their brim trimmed about 1/4". Full 4" brims are designed for men, and often make smaller people look like mushrooms. A little judicious trimming and shaping can make a world of difference in a hat.

3. Care: even the finest hats will look horrible 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 case, and never leave your hat in a hot car or horse trailer in a plastic bag-it will heat warp and look like a tortilla chip.

4. Sourcing: it's imperative to buy your western hats from an experienced retailer-don't trade at a store that isn't serious enough about hats to offer shaping, trimming, and expert consultation. Spending a few more dollars to have your hat professionally shaped and fitted is the way to go, whether you have a great western store in your area, shop at the trade show of a major event, or discuss your exact needs over the phone with the resident hat expert from a store far away.

Both hats are appropriate, and both blend nicely with the rider's outfits, but which creates a more pleasing silhouette? Though there's no 'right' answer to that question, keep in mind:

- tall riders can shorten their look with a dark hat.
- short riders can lengthen their look with a pale hat.
- hat shape, color, and size affect the final look.
- overhead lighting will exaggerate hat shadows on your face.
- certain outfits beg for a particular hat-compare!
- before your next show, have a 'dress rehearsal' to try both light and dark hats with your outfits to choose the look that's best.

2004 Hobby Horse Clothing Co, Inc., Reprinted with permission of Hobby Horse Clothing Co, Inc.