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An ode to the hat
An ode to the hat

By Mark Daniell

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, wrote Charles Mingus in 1959: a sentiment shared by jazz fans and people on windy bridges the world over. But could any of them have known how accurate a forecast this lugubrious melody was to be? For it seems ever since that day the hat, all hats, have been rolling up, punching out and vanishing from our daily lives.
Cast your eye over any old photograph and certain things stand out: everyone is slim, there’s always one guy staring straight into the lens, and no matter the occasion, there is a huge proliferation of hats. Trilbies, bowlers, cloth caps; busbies, gatsbies, top hats; boaters, panamas, bonnets… hat wearing was de rigueur in olden times. And yet take a stroll down the road in our coldest midwinter and you’ll be hard pushed to see a woolly beanie.

After centuries at the head of fashion, at the drop of a hat, headgear is dead. How could we let this happen? We who so keenly recognise that the hat maketh the man. Look at Napoleon, Davy Crockett, John Dillinger, Sherlock Holmes, The Three Amigos. Hats are cool, hats have always been cool, and we let them float to the floor like a torn Christmas cracker crown.

As with Anthea Turner, prawn cocktail crisps and other curious 20th century phenomena, it is probably impossible to explain the demise of the hat without unprovable, wildly speculative theories. Accordingly:

Hats were designed to keep heads warm. An increase in the standard of living, a change in lifestyle to office working and the rise of the personal automobile meant heads were less often out in the cold in the first place. As far as warmth was concerned, hats, like gloves, were redundant.

Hats covered up greasy or unkempt hair. Slap on the Brylcreem, they’d say, that’s the style! Sure that was the style, because there was no shampoo. In came shampoo and men were free to enjoy the fabled ‘dry look’. Which, as anyone who’s had hat hair knows, is incompatible with a flat cap.

What’s that in the distance? Who am I talking to? Can’t see? No wonder, because the sun is in your eyes and without a hat, you’re about to walk your squinting face under a double decker bus. But in 1954, Rayban brought out the Wayfarer, probably the most immediately recognisable fashion item of the 20th century. Pop stars could hide bags behind darkened lenses, movie stars banished concerns of revealing red eyes, and the rest of us couldn’t wait to follow suit. Shades were in, hats were binned.

And lastly, have you ever noticed how some people never wear hats, ever? Julius Caesar, MacDuff, Little John’s baby in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves? Coincidence? I don’t think so.  In my humble opinion, men born of Caesarian section have larger heads than those who squeezed out the natural exit, and people with big heads can’t wear hats for fear of looking like upturned soft-boiled eggs. Today the number of Caesarian births has ballooned to around a fifth of the population in England and Wales, and no amount of nostalgia is going to clad all those bobbing domes.

But if the hat is gone, don’t think it extinct. Fashions are governed by cultural and technological novelty and change with the prevailing wind. If affordable sunglasses are today stifling widespread hat use, then the proliferation of CCTV cameras is surely a breath of life. Already we have seen a rise in the use of hoods: a return to the shelter of anonymity popular in medieval times, and should any of our cities’ feral populations sit down and watch the end scene of 1999’s The Thomas Crown Affair, bowler hats may yet become the uniform foreseen by Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange.

Photo of Buster Keaton: Source

First posted on November 11, 2009

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Genius writing! I wear a Trilby when the occasion takes me. Panama in the summer. Nothing finer… Personally I’d like to see people wearing big hats with giant plumes like in The Three Musketeers (the one with Oliver Reed). Maybe capes too!

More articles like this please.

  • Matthew
  • 11 Nov, 2009
  • 6:13 pm

Hear hear! I wear a fedora sometimes, a flat cap at other times; likewise a Panama or similar in the summer. Plenty of approving comments result! Just got to perfect my doffing technique now…

Regarding the “people you never see in hats” point, another theory used to explain the decline of the hat (in America, at least) is - President Kennedy. You hardly ever see a picture of him wearing a hat. Some have suggested that this coupled with his overwhelming popularity put paid to traditional headgear in the States from the Sixties onwards.

  • Nick
  • 14 May, 2010
  • 12:49 pm

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