In Calgary, nothing is more emblematic of "cowboy culture" than the white cowboy hat, one of the most vaunted gifts that the city can give to its celebrated guests as a representation of old western values. According to artist Donna White, whose latest work is on a billboard along the Stampede Parade route on Ninth Avenue, the famous white hat has a history almost unrelated to the west.
"If you do the research, people now associate that white hat with Stampede, but that's not where it started," explains White. "It started in about 1948 and came out of a trip of aldermen and the mayor to a Grey Cup in Toronto. They wanted to identify and standout as being from the West, so they took a chuckwagon, Indian dancers, even did the pancake breakfast thing and of course, brought the white hats."
The work itself is a series of three images, endlessly shifting from one to the others. The one consistent theme in the three are two women standing opposite each other, a pile of paper hats in the middle. White explains that the first image is of the older woman wearing the hat, which then shifts to her taking off her hat as the younger woman on her right grabs one from the pile. With the elder hatless, the younger is now wearing the hat.
Appropriating the idea of the white hat and then putting it in another gendered context, was an idea based on the male-centric history, says White.
"The city of Calgary clearly states what this white hat is supposed to represent on its website," she says. "It's supposed to harken back to the idea of the natural cowboy: obviously male, obviously white, obviously straight--that's the cowboy. You can also think about the mythic side of the cowboy hat and that includes elements of the Roy Roger and Clint Eastwood version of the West."
The hats, each with different patterns, are taken from close-up photos of the old Banker's Hall building and the St. Louis Hotel. Shrunk down to fit on the cut-out pattern of the paper hat, it makes the hat look just like the straw faux-Stetsons commonly seen around town. The paper versions evoke the ubiquitous white cowboy head covering and, White contends, are supposed to help point out the different conceptions of gender.
"There's this notion that when you put that white hat on you say, 'I'm participating in this civic event and its pride,'" says White. "You get the idea of western hospitality and the notion of us all being the same--we both have that hat on, we're equal. It's not that easy. Who we are as people and our identities aren't that easy. When someone has that cowboy hat on, you can still tell their race, you can tell their gender and you can probably tell their class."
As Calgary begins its slow march to become the mid-west's gleaming metropolis, there are questions about the normative gender relations that need to be explored. While White's billboard was shown on CTV three separate times--it is on the parade route after all--and many people will see it daily, there hasn't been that much discussion about it. The questions about western identity in relation to women will still be kicking around, especially when "The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth" comes around again.
Donna White’s exhibition is on a billboard on Ninth Avenue and Eighth Street SW, with background information and other works at the Stride Gallery.