Q:  The late Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips (no relation) always took off his hat in the Astrodome because his mama taught him not to wear one inside. However, Texas sheriffs seem to live by a different code. I recently saw a photo of several of the peacekeepers posed around an empty conference table, Stetsons firmly snugged in place. Is there ever a time when a Texas sheriff removes his hat indoors?

David K. Phillips, Brenham

A: The office of sheriff dates back to Texas’s earliest days; every constitution we’ve had has stipulated that there be a sheriff for each county. There are, as all Texans know, 254 counties here and therefore 254 such lawmen and lawwomen who enforce traffic laws on county roads, run county jails, serve processes and orders of the courts, and, in some small counties, work as ex officio tax assessors and collectors.

And because each of them is essentially the boss of their department, each of them gets to make policy calls regarding uniforms. In Travis County, where the Texanist lives, cowboy hats are optional—Sheriff Sally Hernandez, in fact, never wears one. In other counties cowboy hats are mandatory, as is that certain affable austerity. To the best of the Texanist’s knowledge (he will admit that he did not reach out to all 254 sheriffs to find out), there is no department that expressly forbids the wearing of cowboy hats. This is Texas, after all!

As for exactly when and exactly where a sheriff doffs or doesn’t doff their hat, it turns out that (1) the rules of hat etiquette for civilians don’t always apply to folks in uniform, and (2) uniform policies  are not always applied uniformly. Steve Westbrook, the executive director of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, says a sheriff’s hat stays on in almost every situation. There are, though, a few exceptions. “When there’s a prayer, the hats come off,” he says. The same usually goes at funerals and when the National Anthem is played. And when the National Anthem is played at a funeral? Forget it.

That would seem to settle it except for one niggling little thing: The ever-quotable Bum Phillips, explaining why he took off his trademark white Stetson in the Astrodome, exclaimed, “Mama always said that if it can’t rain on you, you’re indoors.” Which, given the hat etiquette that prevails for the nonsheriffs among us, leads one to wonder whether Bum would have expected civilian hat wearers, such as the Texanist, to remove our hats beneath the roof of an outdoor pavilion. Or under an umbrella. Or while lounging on a screened-in porch. These are confounding questions for those of us who aren’t fortunate enough to be Texas sheriffs. So confounding, in fact, that the Texanist is considering running for sheriff so he never again has to worry about where and when to wear or not wear his various hats. He hopes he can count on your vote.  

This article originally appeared in the January 2024 issue of Texas Monthly. Subscribe today.