Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Romance of Hats

“If we wore more hats, we would not have so much Prozac.” Milliner Blythe Savage once said. It’s a very superficial statement that oversimplifies a complex problem, but worth considering if you analyze the decline of hat wearing and behavior in America.

The film industry has known for years how to create drama through the use of wardrobe. Lena Olin in The Unbearable Lightness of Being put on (or took off) her hat to create sexual tension. In the opening scenes of Titanic, the camera fell in love with Kate Winslet when she tilted her hat-bearing head upward to survey the enormous ship. Most of us are familiar with the scene in Casablanca when Humphrey Bogart kisses Ingrid Bergman goodbye, both of them wearing hats.

We have all seen old photographs of our grandparents and great-grandparents. If the picture was taken outside, in a crowd, at a train station, or at a sporting event: the men are inevitably wearing hats, and they look tremendously handsome. In 1900, both men and women would change their hats according to the activity or occasion. Etiquette articles suggested that it was improper to leave your home without a hat and gloves.

At the turn of the last century, it was taken for granted that men, regardless of age, race, religion or ethnic heritage, wore hats in public. Industry groups such as the Hat Style Council determined how many hats a “well-dressed” man ought to own (16). While not every man who owned a hat was considered fashionable, the public penalties for not wearing one were enough to ensure that every man, rich or poor, owned at least one. Aside from being hissed at and insulted, strangers might think a hatless man crazy or drunk. Whether one wore a hat for protection from the elements, as a part of a uniform, for religious or social rituals, or to complete an ensemble: it is unquestionable that hats have played a major role in American History.

In his book Hatless Jack: the president, the fedora, and the history of American style, Neil Steinberg tries to pinpoint the exact time and place that hats became obsolete. Many people credit or blame President Kennedy for the hat’s demise because he went to his inauguration hatless. This is only partially true. He wore a black, silk top hat to the event, but took it off to deliver his inaugural address. The Hat Style Council was challenged with getting the president to wear hats, and getting Khrushchev to stop wearing hats. Positioning these two gentlemen against each other, even in the act of wearing or not wearing a hat, suggests that the wearing of a hat means something.

In his book Within The Context of No Context, George Trow discusses a scene from his childhood. As a young boy, he would wait and watch for his father walking home from the train station each night. As his father’s figure approached, young George would become more excited. His father would come into the house, take off his fedora and place it on George’s head. Mr. Trow told his son that it would someday be a necessity that he too own a fedora and have a job in the city. He describes it as a right of passage into adulthood, a passage that the now adult George Trow cannot access because men don’t wear fedoras anymore. He further laments that if he were to wear one, it would only be with irony.

Will we ever get the romance of hats back?


Chris said...

A subject dear to my heart, Rita. I own a fedora, but often gets strange looks when I wear it. Most likely because it is worn without irony. When you see fedora style hats being sold at Hot Topic or Spencer Gifts, you know that irony is the only way these hats are worn now. I can only hope to see them come back in fashion in my lifetime...but I am not holding my breath,

Rita Finn said...

Chris, whether they come back in fashion or not, I'd rather keep wearing them and be out of fashion; for I know how they can transform my mindset. Thanks!

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