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TODAY

Thursday, October 18

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Detour

Chicago loves cowboy hats.

I discovered this by accident last month while shooting people at neighborhood festivals and nightclubs for WonderfulU.com, an event-photography service founded by a friend. One weekend, I threw on my cowboy hat before heading out -- and an amazing number of people wanted to be photographed while wearing it.

07282003_fig1.jpg

Fig1. Wanna be a cowboy? Just get the hat.

That's when I began to realize the awesome power that cowboy hats possess. Wear one and the transformation is dramatic and immediate. Like two weeks ago at the Lakeview Lounge when, on request, I handed my hat to this guy, who expertly set it in place, cocked his head to one side and asked, "How do I look?"

"Sorta like Brad Pitt in 'Thelma & Louise,' " I replied.

"I FUCKED YOUR WIFE!!!" he screamed.

Most guys don't quote lines from films, though. Rather, they silently and automatically´┐Żassume a variation of one of three poses: (1) Hat down low, arms crossed, who-you-lookin'-at; (2) Hat midlevel, bedroom eyes, Paul Newman "Hud" smirk; (3) Hat pushed back, 500-watt smile and howdy, y'all!

07282003_fig2.jpg

Fig2. This guy at Hideout strikes a modified No. 3 pose.

As for gals, there's nothing sexier than a woman in a cowboy hat. Every woman I've met this summer instinctively knows how to wear the hat, how to hold it, how to delicately balance it on her head, how to let her hair cascade out from under just right. They become long-legged dancers, smooth-moving gazelles, queens of the rodeo.

How do people figure all this out? Mass media, to a degree, but I suspect there's more. Headgear does things to you, makes you feel different about yourself. Just ask anybody over 40 who's tried to pull off the backwards-baseball-cap look. At best you look weird, and at worst you invite public derision.

By contrast, cowboy hats are inclusionary. Regardless of age or ranking on society's 1-to-10 scale, you look better in a cowboy hat. And everybody knows this.

07282003_fig3.jpg

Fig3. Everybody looks sexier in a cowboy hat.

I get plenty of public commentary when I'm out in my cowboy hat, but it's overwhelmingly positive. "Hey, Tex!" is the one I get the most. Another one is, "Are you a cowboy or did you just find the hat?"

As a Denver native who spent most of my life in Colorado, Arizona and Wyoming before moving to Chicago, let me answer that once and for all. I've never known anybody who "found" a cowboy hat. You find Cubs caps, John Deere mesh caps, perhaps the occasional wayward Kangol -- but chance encounters with a cowboy hat that's searching for an unencumbered head just don't happen.

Fact is, you're either given a cowboy hat -- or you buy one.

Despite working at newspapers Out West, I didn't fully embrace the cowboy hat until one Wyoming summer at the Casper Star-Tribune. I lived downtown and jogged past a traditional Western clothing store nearly every day. One Saturday morning the place had a sidewalk sale going on. I decided right then and there I needed a proper cowboy hat.

An old guy at the store helped me pick out a straw Bailey, which he then spent about 20 minutes steaming and shaping to complement my face. Then came the moment of truth.

"I think I need a feather or something," I told him.

"The hell you do!" the old-timer shot back. "What do you think you are, some piece of white trash? This is a working hat -- maybe a bandana, but that's it."

So I went with the bandana, and wore my hat proudly during the intervening years -- and it was on my head last month as I set out to play paparazzo for WonderfulU.com.

Then, two weeks ago, it happened. I met a guy, another transplant from the West, and we got to talking about how we loved the stark beauty of the desert and I reminisced about leaving the Casper Star-Tribune offices once after a late shift and seeing herds of pronghorn antelope grazing on the lawn. I put the cowboy hat on the guy -- and it looked just so natural. ´┐ŻLike I said, everyone looks better in a cowboy hat.

And at that moment, I knew I wasn't going to be asking for the hat back. Just wouldn't be right.

07282003_fig4.jpg

Fig4. The famous neon-ringed cowboy at Alcala's Western Wear.

I felt naked without it, though, so two days later I headed off to Alcala's Western Wear, 1733 W. Chicago Ave., for a replacement. Nancy Munoz helped me pick a great-looking straw Stetson. While trying it on, my eyes wandered over to another display and I decided to see what I looked like in a black felt hat.

Damn, I looked good. So I bought both.

07282003_fig5.jpg

Fig5. Smile when you call me that.

The issue is not whether you found the hat: if you put it on, then you're a cowboy. So ride hard, shoot straight and speak the truth.

And happy trails to you.

 

About the Author(s)

Leigh Hanlon looks out from under the brim at HanlonVision.

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