A charro hat, also known as a sombrero de charro or sombrero charro, is a type of wide-brimmed Mexican hat that is an important part of the charro suit worn by charros, traditional horsemen in Mexico. The charro hat has become an iconic symbol of Mexico and Mexican culture. But what exactly is this distinctive hat called?
What is a Charro?
To understand the name of the charro hat, it helps to first understand what a charro is. A charro is a traditional horseman in Mexico who rides highly trained and elegant horses while wearing a distinctive outfit. This outfit is called the traje de charro or charro suit. It consists of tight fitted wool pants with buttons or embroidery down the legs, a short ornamental jacket, boots, a bow tie, and of course, the iconic wide-brimmed sombrero.
Charros have a long history in Mexico dating back to the 16th century. After the Spanish arrived, colonists and ranchers adapted traditions of Spanish equestrians into local cattle herding practices. This blending of European and indigenous horse culture evolved into the charrería, Mexico’s national sport which involves a series of cattle handling and roping competitions often performed at charreadas or charro rodeos. Charros who compete in charreadas are skilled riders trained in precise equestrian techniques. Their elegant costumes reflect Spanish, Mexican, and rural heritage.
The charro suit and the brave, highly skilled charros who wear it represent courage, pride, masculinity, and the stalwart spirit of rural Mexico. The hat in particular is a vital part of this cultural icon.
Names of the Charro Hat
The formal name for a charro hat is “sombrero de charro” or “sombrero charro.” “Sombrero” simply means “hat” in Spanish. Adding “de charro” or “charro” identifies it as a style worn by Mexican horsemen.
This hat is also sometimes referred to as a “sombrero ancho” meaning “wide hat” referring to its broad brim. “Sombrero de pajo” or “paja hat” is another common name, as these hats are traditionally made from woven straw or other plant fibers (“paja” meaning straw in Spanish).
Many people simply call them “Mexican hats” or mistakenly refer to them as sombreros when this term really applies to multiple hat styles, not just the charro hat. Overall, “sombrero charro” or “sombrero de charro” are the most accurate names for this iconic Mexican topper.
Shape and Features
What gives the sombrero charro its distinctive look?
These hats have very wide brims, often 12-16 inches wide or more, that slope gently upward around the crown. The brims provide ample shade from the blazing Mexican sun. A good quality sombrero charro is expertly shaped to have a graceful, rounded brim.
Crowns are fairly high at 5-6 inches tall. This extra height allows for airflow between the head and hat to keep the wearer cool. The crown of a charro hat is lightly tapered with a flat top rather than sharply creased like cowboy hats.
Charro hats are normally made of lighter more flexible natural materials like straw, palm leaf, or fibers from agave plants. This adds lightweight durability and breathability.
Decorative elements are minimal. Traditional charro hats have a simple leather or grosgrain hatband, or “faja” wrapped around the crown. Some also have rawhide or leather ties called “barboquejo” for securing the hat in windy conditions.
It is the elegant simplicity of charro hats that make them so iconic. They frame the face and cast a distinctive shadow while allowing charros freedom of movement for riding and roping.
History and Culture
To fully appreciate the sombrero charro, it helps to understand its deep history and cultural symbolism in Mexico.
These distinctive hats trace their origins to rural cattle herding. Wide brims provided essential shade from the sun while a high durable crown resisted damage when working. Designs were adapted from Spanish sombreros and evolved to suit the rugged Mexican countryside.
During the bloody Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s, soldiers and rebels wore charro suits along with ammunition belts in battles. Images of charros on horseback, rifles raised proudly alongside their sombreros became iconic, equating the charro look with revolution and liberty.
After the fighting subsided, charros continued to wear these hats as a symbol of national pride. By the 1940s they were firmly embedded in the charrería and ranch culture. Charreadas displaying skilled horsemanship and roping in elegant charro attire became a popular national sport, further popularizing the charro look.
Over time sombrero charros became internationally synonymous with Mexico. While few Mexicans today outside of charrería circles actually wear these hats daily, they remain an important cultural symbol. The charro hat style shows up frequently in murals, films, art, and tourism images representing Mexican identity. It’s an image that evokes rural Mexico, tradition, horsemanship, and national pride.
Authentic charro hats are still painstakingly crafted by artisans just as they were generations ago. The basic steps in traditional production include:
Hat bodies are first shaped from blocks of compressed natural fibers. Traditional materials include straw, palm fronds, or fibers from agave or lechuguilla plants native to Mexico. The fibers are moistened, pressed into blocks, then carved into a hat form which gets its initial shape.
Ironing and Finishing
Next, the roughly shaped hats are ironed and steamed using wood blocks and anvils to refine their slope and curve. The specific techniques vary by region and workshop, but may involve carefully passing the flexible hat bodies over hot metal to smooth and shape them. This process requires great skill to achieve the proper proportions and grace of a quality sombrero charro.
Trimming and Sewing
Once shaped, the hat brim is trimmed into a neat finish. The crown receives a lining, often leather for durability and to wick sweat during wear. The edges are bound with ribbon or leather. A thin hat band is frequently added around the outside crown as a final flourish.
It can take artisans weeks to transform raw fibers into a completed sombrero charro. Their craftsmanship and regional variations make each hat unique.
Where to Buy
Authentic charro hats handmade in Mexico can be purchased from a number of sources:
– Directly from hat workshops and makers in cities across Mexico
– Mercados or traditional markets in locations like Mexico City, Guadalajara, Morelia
– Specialty stores in Mexico that focus on traditional clothing and accessories
– fair trade Mexican imports shops in the United States
– Online retailers that source traditional hats directly from Mexican artisans
Quality and sizing can vary greatly, so when possible it’s best to try on hats in person. For online purchases, check reviews and sizing charts carefully.
Bargain sombrero charros do exist, but many are cheap knockoffs made from synthetic materials. Seek reputable sources for an authentic, handcrafted charro hat made the traditional way in Mexico. With proper care, a quality charro hat will last for years.
Similar Hat Styles
The iconic sombrero charro has inspired hat styles across Latin America and the American West. Here are some similar designs:
This intricately woven, lightweight hat comes from Colombia. It has a high tapered crown like a charro sombrero but a very tightly curled and angled brim. These hats are crafted from gynerium cane fibers that are woven into complex patterns.
Many cowboy hats like Stetsons share characteristics with charro hats. Both have tall crowns and wide sloping brims for sun protection. However, cowboy hats have more heavily creased crowns and brims with interior wiring for shaping. Materials tend toward leather and felt rather than straw.
In Puebla, Mexico, large China Poblana hats are popular. These have flat, very wide brims up to 20 inches that gently curve up at the edges. Their shape is similar to charro hats but the crown is much lower. They often have colorful decorative embellishments.
Jipijapa and Panama Hats
Lightweight hats woven from jipijapa palm fibers in Ecuador and Panama have an open weave and flat tops like sombrero charros. But their brims are shorter and have a flat rather than sloped profile.
The charro sombrero remains distinct from these styles, even as it has inspired hat fashions across the Americas.
Caring for a Charro Hat
With proper care and maintenance, an authentic sombrero charro will last for many years. Here are some tips for caring for your charro hat:
– Store in a hat box or on a wide brim hat stand to maintain its shape when not wearing. Avoid hanging from narrow hooks that can distort the brim.
– To clean, gently brush with a soft hat brush or wipe with a dry cloth. Avoid getting the hat wet if possible. For deeper cleaning, use a minimal amount of mild detergent and soft towel, reshape, and allow to fully air dry.
– Over time, steam and hand shaping may be needed to re-form and stiffen the brim and crown back into their original graceful slopes. Take to a professional hatter if needed.
– Use leather conditioner on leather hat bands and interior sweatbands to keep supple.
– Never fold the brim or puncture/tear the materials. Handle gently when storing and transporting.
– Protect from direct sun, heat, and rain when possible to avoid bleaching and warping of shape.
With proper occasional reshaping and conditioning, a quality charro sombrero can retain its elegant shape and last for generations, just like the charro culture it represents.
The charro sombrero or sombrero de charro is more than just a traditional Mexican hat. Over generations it has become woven into the very cultural fabric of Mexico, representing horsemanship, revolution, pride, and national identity. Its wide sloping brim and high tapered crown are designed to protect charros from sun while allowing freedom of movement, perfectly adapting traditional materials into a functional yet graceful work of folk art. Each hat is meticulously crafted by artisans using techniques passed down through generations. When cared for properly, an authentic charro hat will last for decades. This iconic symbol of rural Mexico and the brave charros who wear it continues to shape Mexican identity and is recognized worldwide as a quintessential part of Mexican culture.