The Story of the Open Road

Widely imitated, never replicated, since 1937

By Paul Underwood

Every now and again, form and function intersect to create something somehow both useful and beautiful, purpose-built yet iconic. The Coca-Cola bottle. The denim work shirt. The Porsche 911. To that list we would add: The Stetson Open Road, a style so classic and time-tested that it’s hard to believe there was ever a world where it didn’t exist.

The hat, with its western crown and shorter, town-friendly brim, dates back to 1937, a time when the open road itself was a relatively new concept. Route 66 was just over a decade old, and the top-of-the-line V-8 in the latest-model Ford cranked out a whopping 85 horsepower. Unlike today’s sturdy, hard-wearing Open Road, the 1937 iteration was more of a lightweight, western-inflected fedora.

It wasn’t until 1948 that the Open Road as we know it—with its iconic cattleman crown, narrow grosgrain ribbon, and that perfectly proportioned brim turned up just so at the edge—entered the world. It was an instant success, thanks in part to a marketing campaign that blanketed Texas and other Western states, proclaiming the hat’s versatility as a dressy option at home in town or country, in the West or back East. (“Almost as popular on the Avenue as they are on the Open Road,” as one ad later put it.)

Advertisment in The Saturday Evening Post, 1950
Advertisment, 1952
Advertisment in Time, February 1953

Before long, the Open Road was adorning some of the most famous heads in the land. Presidents in particular seemed to relish the style—Harry S. Truman was an early adopter, as was Dwight Eisenhower, both of whom wore it with a suit. 

LYNDON B. JOHNSON IN HIS SIGNATURE OPEN ROAD, 1966

Lyndon B. Johnson’s affinity for the Open Road inspired both a Stetson ad campaign (touting “The L.B.J. Look”) and a wave of knockoffs in the mid-’60s. (You can still buy your own—authentic—Open Road at the LBJ Ranch near Johnson City, Texas.) Winston Churchill wore one; so did Hank Williams. The hat played a supporting role in films like Smokey and the Bandit and From Dusk Till Dawn, while modern luminaries including Jeff Tweedy of Wilco have helped ensure the hat’s legend endures in the 21st Century.

Before long, the Open Road was adorning some of the most famous heads in the land.

In the early days, Stetson ads declared the Open Road “a hat that will proclaim your distinctive individuality to the world”—a sentiment that rings more true now than ever. You can get an Open Road in straw, hemp, or, of course, fur felt, each one adorned with our new 1865 pin. As it has been for decades, the Open Road is made by hand in Garland, Texas, meaning only a handful are in production at any one time.

Quality takes time, as we like to say, but, as the Open Road proves, quality also endures.

OPEN ROAD IN ACTION: HIGHLIGHTS FROM OUR SPRING/SUMMER 2022 CAMPAIGN