Before there was a James Dean & his Porsche Speedster there was another Hollywood icon with amazing style, who died tragically behind the wheel of a spectacular car: Tom Mix. Tom was the original cowboy movie superstar and the prototype for all who have followed. Without him there would not have been a Lone Ranger, a Roy Rogers, or for that matter a Clint Eastwood.
His signature look was a large Stetson felt hat with a certain distinctive crease on the crown that set the style for male glamour in 1920's & 30’s Hollywood. All the male leading men that followed Tom in the western genre, adopted the look and even presidents and prime ministers wanted to look like Tom Mix. In the early days of the motion picture business in the 1920s he was the most popular movie star – more popular than Douglas Fairbanks & Gloria Swanson. His Saturday Matinees made the Fox studio which Hollywood locals called ‘Mixville’.
Mix with his 3rd wife Olive Stokes who was an Oklahoma cowgirl and looked it
Mix in his early days as wild west show performer
The classic Mix look
Tom Mix comic book
Tom Mix was a 5’ 5” square jawed, ruggedly handsome, clean cut daredevil. His father was a former Cavalryman and worked as a stable master for a wealthy timber baron in western Pennsylvania. Tom grew up around horses and it’s likely he could ride as soon as he could walk. He had an uncanny ability to make horses do things, and devised and performed all of his own stunts. Tom’s action sequences frequently involved jumping off his fast moving horse Tony onto trains or cars, to get the bad guys or rescue a damsel in distress. He was responsible for developing a lot of stunt man’s gags for western movies.
Tom embodied a kind of can-do American optimism that fit the mood of a dynamic new 20th century America. By the end of the 1930’s Mix ‘The King of The Cowboys’ had become a living legend with 291 movies, his own comic book, a radio variety show, and a circus. He rode around in a custom yellow supercharged Cord coupe with his TM brand molded into the tire tread so he could leave his mark all over Hollywood.
Mix & Tony (his horse) doing crazy stunts
by the end of the 1920's the Mix style had conquered Hollywood
Winston Churchill (a man who never met a hat he didn't like) in California in 1929
President Calvin Coolidge shooting trap in a Mix style hat
Tom Mix had flair for self promotion and created a larger than life myth to enhance his celebrity. At various times he claimed to have ridden up San Juan hill with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, been a Texas Ranger chasing outlaws on the frontier, and the sheriff of a town in Arizona. Most of it was wildly exaggerated, but what wasn’t an exaggeration was his physical courage, riding skill, and sense of style. Boys idolized him, Men admired him, and woman could not leave him alone. He was not very good at being married (5 wives), and even with an income in the 1920’s of $17,000 a week ($240,000 in today’s dollars), he managed to go through most of his money. He liked to party hard and was once famously quoted on the witness stand during a lawsuit that he did not consider a man drunk “until he has to hold onto the grass, to keep from falling down.”
The impossibly good looking Randolph Scott
Scott & Cary Grant were two of hollywood's best looking leading men in the 30's and were secretly lovers
Tom did not die young (he was 60 when he died in 1940) but he did die in a lurid way that is the stuff of legend. Leaving a party in Tucson late at night (and very possibly inebriated) he crashed his famous yellow Cord on a washed out bridge on an unpaved road heading for Phoenix and was struck in the head by his suitcase breaking his neck. An ironic death for someone who took so many risks. There is a monument in Florence Arizona marking the spot.
The image Mix created with his fitted western clothing and tall crowned (ten gallon) hat cast a long shadow over American movies and television, and stars like Gary Cooper & Randolph Scott were his heirs. Tom’s influence on American culture can still be found in expression’s like ‘he’s a straight shooter’ and our love for action movie heroes that shows no sign of flagging.
Gary Cooper in an early western
Joe Kennedy & Tom Mix - In the late 20's Mix went to work for Joseph P. Kennedy's studio FBO and was famously quoted as describing Kennedy as a "tight-assed, money-crazed son-of-a-bitch"
Mix and 4th wife actress Victoria Forde in a studio publicity shot
Mix with his supercharged 170 hp Cord Phaeton. The power plant was a 288.6 cu. in. Lycoming V-8
Painting of Mix's 'last ride'
the custom car featured hand tooled leather gas peddle and mudflaps with the TM brand
news photo of Mix death car
What we think of today as a cowboy hat, was not what 19th century cowboys wore. Brims were mostly flat and crowns mostly low. Made from beaver fur felt they were impervious to rain and snow. In the southwest many wore the Mexican style sombrero with the higher crown and larger brim (a higher crown is cooler in the desert sun). The hat Mix wore had its origins in the 1910 Colonel McCoy from Stetson which featured a 9” crown and a 6” brim and was made for early cowboy movie actor Ken McCoy. The distinctive ‘crease’ in the crown had its origins in the ‘Montana crease’ that the northern great plains cowboys favored, and what we think of as the drill instructors style hat. So Mix’s ten gallon hat was really a fur felt sombrero, with a Montana crease and it came to represent the cowboy hero in the movies.
a group of real late 19th century northern plains cowboys showing off a wolf in Wyoming. Note the 'Montana crease' on the cowboys on the right and the relativly flat brims
an early hat with a montana crease and lacing on the brim which helped keep the brim flat
a very sharp african american army officer around the turn of the 20th century wearing a campaign hat with a montana crease - what we think of today as a drill instructors hat
unlike the hollywood version, in the real old west many working cowboys were african american. Here's a crew wearing tall crowned hats with a variety of creases
sheep chaps and montana creased hats`
Stetson's first tall crowned western hat
a high crowned version from the Sears catalog
some vintage Stetson marketing
current chart showing the difference between the Tom Mix and the Gus styles
As the western movie genre evolved, each classic cowboy had his signature hat style and the Mix style gradually faded from the scene as hats became smaller and more likely featured the ranchers crease that we tend to associate western stars of the 50’s and 60’s and with Nashville country singers. It wasn’t until 1979 by which point the 'western' was completly out of style that Steve McQueen once described as "the epitome of the perfect American male" and “the king of cool” reprised the look in his film portrayal of Tom Horn. Horn was an old west bounty hunter and Pinkerton agent who runs up against a newly civilized frontier and ends up going to the gallows. The film was not a box office success, but McQueen's portrayal of an authentic dying breed cowboy was a classic.
McQueen was a fanatic for authenticity and method acted the part to the extent of living in costume out on site near the Mexican border in a small camper with no electricity cooking his food over a campfire with his beautiful new model girlfriend, and shooting at Iguanas with a 45 Colt revolver. McQueen had an uncanny ability to portray cool characters because like Mix, he was a cool character. He rode motorcycles in the desert, raced cars, and was catnip to woman. When it came to selecting the hat for his penultimate authentic western character he went back to the Mix archetype and selected a light colored, tall crowned felt hat with a battered Montana crease. Western hat manufacturers began offering the style and calling it the ‘Tom Horn.’
Steve McQueen as Tom Horn
A current Tom Horn style from a custom hatter
Fast forward 10 years, and gifted actor Robert Duvall selected this style hat for his authentic portrayal of Augustus “Gus” McCrae a former Texas Rangerlater in 1989’s CBS miniseries Lonesome Dove. McCrae like McQueen’s Horn is running up against a new century and a settled – no longer ‘wild’ west. Duvall is quoted as saying that “in order to find a character, he had to find the right hat” and that the director wanted him to wear a different style but that he insisted on the Tom Horn style. Duvall knew a thing or two about wearing a hat - he had famously portrayed a gung ho Calvary officer in Frances Ford Coppola’s classic Vietnam war epic Apocalypse Now; leading his men into battle wearing a 19th century Calvary officers hat and claiming that “he loved the smell of napalm in the morning”.
In the cowboy hat business Duvall’s Gus McCrae was a boon. Everybody who wore a cowboy hat wanted to look like Gus, and soon all of the major manufacturers offered a ‘Gus’ style hat. And that is what the style is known as today 25 years later. The modern day Gus is not as large as the style Tom Mix wore in the 20’s, but it retains some of go-to-hell swagger of the original with its dramatic downward slope of the crown from back to front, and it’s easy to grab ‘Montana’ side creases.
Robert Duvall in Apocolypse Now
Robert Duvall as Gus McCrea in Lonsome Dove
Dressed up Gus
Woman can rock this style too
The latest evolution in western hats is the ‘crushable’ felt cowboy hat which is a little more casual and adaptable to modern life and guys used to wearing ball caps. Several manufactures offer 'crushable' gus styles.
You can jam them in your coat pocket or your back pack, and it won’t be ruined (you can’t do that with a traditional felt cowboy hat). They are also less expensive and generally fall in the $35 - $70 range.
Not bad for all that swagger.
click on images below for great eBay sellers of this item
Texas Western Wear Discounted
References For This Article
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Wikipedia – Tom Mix
Tom Mix: The Myth on Horseback
Tom Mix Museum
The Campfire Chronicle - facts about Tom Mix
Grant & Scott, a love story
In search of the real cowboy hat
Everything you wanted to know about cowboy hat but didn’t know who to ask
At Home with Robert Duvall American Cowboy