You could say that Tom Hirt began his career as a dead guy.
Cast as Mark Harmon’s stand-in in the 1978 Western Comes a Horseman, Hirt took the role of the slain cowboy so seriously that the crew left him to die—so to speak—and took a lunch break. “I kept wondering why it was so quiet,” he recalls.
But Hirt was hooked. The aura of the cowboy lifestyle pulled him in like the tide. “I would do anything to be a part of it,” he says.
So when the Screen Actors Guild went on strike in the late ’70s, interrupting his string of stand-in roles, Hirt transitioned to the fine art of crafting cowboy hats. He moved to Colorado Springs and became apprentice to the late Art Henderson, owner of the Weather Hat Shop on Tejon Street. After a year of learning the ropes, he purchased the business, renamed it Tom Hirt Custom Hats, and relocated the showroom to his ranch in Penrose.
Even while transitioning to a 9-to-5 lifestyle, Hirt managed to keep his hand in Colorado’s motion picture industry. “Whenever there was a movie being shot in Colorado,” he says, “I made myself available and kept mentioning my hats.”
Some country singers began wearing them. But it was actor Sam Elliott who was among the first in Hollywood to take notice; he’s been wearing Hirt’s cowboy hats ever since. Hirt’s felt-covered brims have also graced the heads of movie stars like Val Kilmer, Sharon Stone, Burt Reynolds and Richard Farnsworth, as well as one actor who became better known after his Hollywood days: President Ronald Reagan. Hirt’s cowboy hats have appeared in Tombstone, Conagher and The Quick and the Dead, earning him the moniker of “Hatmaker for the Movies.”
Today, Hirt still lives on his 50-acre Penrose “cow camp,” where he rides herd on two quarter horses, one dog and dual striped tabby cats, and the cows come and go. He’s ever the wrangler at heart. The whole thing bears an uncanny resemblance to an early Western movie set, complete with corrals and even a chuck wagon. It’s here that he continues to field calls and emails with orders from around the world.
At best, Hirt can only make five hats a week—the precise handwork takes time. “I feel like I’m selling buggy whips in a world that’s leaving you behind,” he says.
It’s a surprisingly organic process that begins with wool or fur derived from beaver, rabbit or mink, combed together to make batts of fur felt. According to Hirt, the best cowboy hat is made from pure beaver hair. “The hairs are intertwined for strength and can last a lifetime.” They are also the most expensive: A pure beaver hair hat can set a cowboy back $1,000.
The real wizardry begins in molding the felt into a specific style of hat. Hirt’s website offers 15 variations, from the flat-brimmed Dunlap to the tapestry-banded Mesquite, but he offers hundreds of styles. “Your imagination is my limitation,” he says. Geographic influences enter into play: Colorado and Wyoming hats trend toward curled brims; black is popular in Arizona; and Texas hats are commonly what one would think—big.
Hirt’s biggest challenge is not so much in hat creation, but in the communication with his customers. “Some know exactly what they want, and others tend to copy what they’ve seen,” he explains. “It’s the most difficult part of hat-making.” But he says most of his buyers are true hat people, men and women who “never walk out the door without their hat.”
Ed Sergent of Peyton says Hirt is well-suited to serve those people. Friends for 40 years, the two of them roped cattle and worked as ranch hands throughout the West. “Tom has a true understanding of Western history and culture—puts him in a special category,” Sergent says.
It is estimated that fewer than 50 hatmakers remain in the U.S. with the knowledge and intricate skill to work by hand. Though the number is dwindling, the demand for custom hats remains constant. So much so, in fact, that Trinidad State Junior College routinely fills a weeklong continuing education course in hat making, with “Professor” Hirt at the helm.
Perhaps it’s a sentimental nod to our country’s heritage, and the era when the American West held both promise and freedom. Or maybe it’s a simple appreciation for old-school tradition and technique. Whatever the reason, we remain in love with the cowboy hat—for which Hirt is deeply grateful. As he surveys the horizon beyond his ranch, he says, “It put me in a world I wanted to be.”
How to Buy a Cowboy Hat
Summer is rodeo season in Colorado. Even if you aren’t out rustling cattle or roping calves, you can look the part by pairing the perfect cowboy hat with your new Wrangler jeans. Here are Tom Hirt’s tips on channeling your inner cowboy to find the style that fits you best.
1. Buy the biggest brim you are comfortable with. You can always cut it down.
2. Consider color—how the felt color blends with your complexion and hair. Gray and chocolate hues are the most compatibly neutral colors; black is harsh and tends to overshadow the face. Think about the colors you commonly wear and coordinate the hat into your wardrobe.
3. Think critically about the crown. Creases and folds determine the shape of the hat and make a bold personal statement. The Gus and the Cattleman are generally the most popular styles, for Hirt and in Western stores.
4. Avoid domination. A hat that is too tall or too wide can be overpowering.
5. Wear it well. Hirt advises, “Wear the hat. Don’t let the hat wear you.”
You can find Hirt’s hat styles at hatsofthewest.com.