The White Hat: A Calgary symbol we love to hate

It's been around since the 1950s and will be with us for years to come, says freelance writer Jeremy Klaszus. Find out how an oddly shaped piece of white felt came to signify our city.

How an oddly shaped piece of white felt came to signify our city

Prince William and Kate don White Hats during a royal visit in 2011. (CBC)

This story was first published on Jan. 4, 2016

Love it or hate it, Calgary's white hat is as hardy as the weather-beaten cowboy it came from.

It's a civic symbol of unusually strong cultural power. Dissenting Calgarians have tried to pry the pristine Smithbilt off our collective cranium over the years, arguing that it no longer reflects who we are.

But the white hat will not go. It's firmly planted. It did not yield when city council tried to knock it loose in the 1950s, and its wide, curved brim has not left us since.

Never mind that as individuals, only a fraction of us wear a cowboy hat — usually for just two boozy weeks a year during Stampede. It's a Calgary bonding ritual.

Hats can indicate power and prestige (think of the top hat), but they can also blur social distinctions (think of the white hat).

"This kind of symbol can be used to draw people in a community together, to give them a sense of communal identity even though they may have competing interests," according to Tamara Palmer Seiler, a retired University of Calgary professor of Canadian Studies. "Class interests, gender, ethnic, etc."

The late Don MacKay perceived the power of the cowboy hat.

MacKay, a radio broadcaster with a flair for civic boosterism, became mayor in 1950 and began the tradition of white-hatting guests to the city. The hat soon became a widely recognizable symbol of the city's western hospitality.

So what does the white hat say about us today? It reveals parts of our identity even as it obscures others.

Hat of freedom 

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi accepts a Toronto Maple Leafs hat presented by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne after she accepted a ceremonial White Hat in 2013. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Although most Calgarians are generations removed from the farm or ranch, Seiler says we still adopt aspects of the cowboy identity: a sense of living on the margins, resistance to central (or eastern) powers and independence.

"We use that figure to say we are the Canadian cowboy," said Seiler, who has written extensively on Calgary's cowboy iconography. "We are part of the nation, but we're also distinctive from. It's a symbol that is malleable, you might say, even though it has a kind of specificity that might turn some people off."

When local fashion stylist Megan Szanik sees the white hat, she sees a symbol of community spirit that was best embodied in Calgarians' response to the 2013 flood.

"The white-hatted cowboy is a do-gooder," said Szanik, a self-described "imported Calgarian" who moved from Montreal in 2007. "He helps his neighbours. He reflects modern Calgary. That's who we are."

Szanik's words carry echoes of Calgary's early media, which sought to contrast the wild American cowboy with the more hospitable Canadian version.  

"The genuine Alberta cowboy is a gentleman," the Calgary Herald editorialized in 1884.

The first white hats were made for oilman Bill Herron's family, who wore them in the Stampede parade and sparked a local fashion craze.

"I love the way a white hat looks," said Szanik, who owns Espy Experience, an Inglewood fashion boutique not far from where Smithbilt has crafted its white hats since 1946. 

"I think it's clean, I think it's classic. If you're going to do any cowboy hat, I'm glad it's a white crisp hat."

Hat of shame

When the Calgary hip-hop artist Transit rapped in 2011 that "we are not all cowboys," he was uttering an old refrain. By 1958, not even a decade after the white hat tradition began, many Calgarians had already grown weary of cowpoke-themed boosterism.

Some city councillors felt MacKay's rampant white-hatting was harming Calgary's image more than helping.

"The white hats undermine efforts to establish Calgary as an oil and industrial centre," warned Alderman P.N.R. Morrison. Even Ald. Grant MacEwan, chronicler of the Canadian West and a future mayor, MLA and lieutenant governor, felt the white hat had outlived its usefulness.

"The presentations have been carried to a foolish extreme," he complained.

Sound familiar?

"People have been resisting this for a long time," Seiler said.

City council voted to limit white hats to 15 for 1958, but MacKay, ever the promoter, was undeterred. He started a White Hat Fund, and got three business leaders to agree to contribute. Eventually, the city's tourism bureau took over the white hats. In trying to dislodge the white hat, city council inadvertently entrenched it even further.

Stuck with the hat

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi gave out a number of white hats to international performers at the Calgary Stampede Grandstand Show in 2013. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

More than 4,700 people have been white-hatted so far in 2015. The ceremony is mainly performed by three organizations: Tourism Calgary, the Calgary International Airport (the white-hatted, red-vested folks who greet you when your plane lands) and the mayor's office, which does 15 to 25 per year.

The hats range in value from $25 canvas models to the $240 rabbit fur Smithbilt, the kind Mayor Naheed Nenshi presented to Prince William and Kate in 2011.

And there's the ritual behind bestowing our city symbol, a kind of civic incantation characterized by a knowing hokeyness.

The wording of the white hat oath varies. One version, which was used on William Shatner, involves the spreading of "heart-warmin', hand-shakin', tongue-loosenin'" western spirit. A less cartoonish version refers to our "special brand of Calgary White Hat hospitality."

The ceremony itself can cause discomfort all around. Many a Calgarian has cringed while watching some poor celebrity or dignitary get white-hatted. And the poor schmuck having the hat bestowed to them often seems confounded, forcing a polite smile while visibly uncomfortable.

Maybe that's part of why the white hat is a Calgary thing. We may have matured past wanting the "eastern bastards to freeze in the dark," as the anti-National Energy Program bumper sticker famously said in the 1980s. But we apparently see no harm in making outsiders squirm a little. For better or worse, the white hat has stuck as a symbol.

"It's become a kind of cultural resource that most of us here use in one way or another, which is what culture is all about," Seiler said.

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.



Jeremy Klaszus is a Calgary-based freelance journalist. A generalist who writes on everything from urban design to baseball, Jeremy has won two National Magazine Awards and numerous regional awards for his work. He has contributed to the Globe and Mail, Swerve, The Walrus, Canadian Geographic, Reader’s Digest and National Geographic Traveler.