Men in hatsWhatever happened to the hat? Whither the fedora? Where have they stashed the Stetsons? Who has banished the boater and trashed the tweed cap? Why is a “Deerstalker” considered a Vietnam movie and a “Panama” no more than a canal?

Who can resist the gritty allure of the gumshoe Bogart tugging at the brim of his hat, or John Wayne glowering from beneath a splendid Stetson? Sherlock Holmes’ brain cannot work without the protection of his deerstalker nor can Gandalf be a whizz without his wizard’s hat. Could there be a Davy Crockett without his coonskin, a Cyrano without his chapeau, a Don Quixote without his saucepan helmet or an Indiana Jones without his hat? Indeed, is a hero a hero at all without a hat?

Alas, the gentleman’s hat has gone the way of the waistcoat and the watch chain as an affectation from an archaic age. The hat—once a necessity is now an absurdity, and why? Because hats are no longer needed. A cowboy hat was a practical protection from the harsh weather. Its broad brim gave shade in the Southwestern heat. Its high crown provided ventilation to the sweaty brow and its sturdy felt—fashioned from animal fur—resisted the rain and kept the head warm in winter. Such a hat was an item of protction and pride. It was a splendid crown, but it was necessary because the cowpoke worked and lived outdoors.

I have tried to wear a hat, but it is more of a nuisance than a necessity. My splendid saturno crafted from the pelt of a Norwegian beaver and sent all the way from an ecclesiastical outfitters in Rome is more of a showpiece than headgear. Shall I wear it as I walk indoors from my study to my garage to get in my car? If it not knocked off as I duck into the car, once seated, the brim hits against the headrest. After arrival shall I wear my sleek saturno for the thirty second walk from car to office? I think not. We live in a climate controlled age, in cars and indoors, and I do not need a hat to keep my head warm in winter or to shade me from the summer heat. I can brave the few seconds from car to home and home to car.

A gentleman is supposed to remove his hat when indoors. When traveling one is rarely outdoors. What, shall I wear my hat for the short walk from the car to the airport lobby? Must I carry it thereafter? Where do I place it on the plane? It needs to be nursed. Shall I wear it for the short walk from the car to my destination? It is easier to leave it behind and brave the elements bareheaded.

In addition to its practicality, a hat indicated one’s profession and status: the scholar with his mortarboard, the priest with his biretta, the banker with his derby, the barrister with his wig. The miner, the soldier, the policeman and the fireman all wore their distinctive helmets with pride. Each unit of the armed forces had its uniform cap, each police force it’s trooper’s hat and badge. Each man wore headgear that marked him out and kept his place.

backwards baseball capMost of that has gone, for democracy is the other disease to affect the hat. I do not mean a political system, but the bland egalitarianism that forces every man to dress like Everyman. We deny that we are bolsheviks, but we all dress like the proletariat now. Compared to our grandfathers we are fabulously wealthy. We could afford to clothe ourselves in the silks and satins of the court of Versailles, but we dress like the peasants in blue jeans, sneakers and grubby sweatshirts. We have the means to dress in brocade britches and broad brimmed hats with plumes. We could wear lace collars and leather boots. We could swash our buckles and buckle our sashes, but we pull on a rumpled pair of khakis and an old T-shirt; and on our head? The ultimate egalitarian headgear: the baseball cap. Worn backwards.

Should he wear some other hat, a man is deemed to be undemocratic. Should he appear in an improbable hat he declares himself to be better than everyone else. He is thought to be a dandy—a latter-day Beau Brummell. The man in the fedora is striking a role, playing a part, assuming an air and showing off. A man in a hat is not a hero but a poseur—an aesthete, a Wildean figure who would not survive in the wild. Wear a straw hat in summer and you must complete the costume with a seersucker suit, a ribbon tie and an ivory topped cane. Wear a fedora in winter and you will be expected to squint through your cigarette smoke and snarl, “Here’s lookin’ at you kid.”

When will men in hats come back? When men come back. When we push back from our desks and laptops, turn off the television and go back outdoors where we belong we will start to need hats again. When I am heaving bricks in the heat of El Salvador on a mission trip I need a hat. When I am trekking with kids to the top of Mayan ruins I need my broad brimmed hat to shield me from the sun. When I am hunting and fishing and working on the farm I want my head protected. When I am out on the street meeting the people I am supposed to care for I will want a hat, and should I ever go into battle I will insist on a very large hat…

….so the enemy has something to aim for.

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13 replies to this post
  1. Chestertonian from start to finish! Superb writing too. But another reason is the cost of hat-check girls and space needed for the hats once removed in restaurants. Our failed culture is good at helping us to debase ourselves while making money for someone else. How amusing that capitalism and choice have paradoxically made us all dress like Chairman Mao’s slaves, identical and shabby.

  2. You’re right. You need to get out more. Then you’d wear hats more.

    When I lived in Seattle, I only wore a hat when it was drizzling and I didn’t want to bother with an umbrella. Now that I’ve returned to the SE US, I find they’re quite helpful for keeping the sun off when I take a walk.

    If anything, women suffer more from our hostility to hats than men. Once, a well-dressed woman was expected to wear a stylish hat on all formal occasions. Now she’s expected not to wear one. Of course, it’s not as bad as those pressures on women to wear uncomfortable shoes, but it is a nuisance.

    I’d rather hats came back for both sexes as a practical matter, worn when they create comfort but not worn for style, which is a nuisance, or as a symbol of social status. I like living in a society where the rich and powerful don’t find it easy to spot one of their kind and ignore the rest of us.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Hospital Gowns and Other Embarrassments: A Teen Girls Guide to Hospitals

  3. It’s not very complicated. hats were in fashion, that’s it. Not every man wore one but it was common enough, a touch of dress, an add on to appearance, and the now long forgotten hat tip to the lady.
    However we do have the baseball cap, a residue of gentility?

  4. Many other cultures have various forms of headwear that are still part of cultural dress code. A bit of travel through Asia and the Middle East would provide more choices and colour in fact. I have a hat stand that is bulging with everything from my Aussie Acubras to my Palestinian Keffiyeh. Still, I enjoyed the read and happily “take my hat off” to Fr Dwight. Did anyone else notice that the good author is pictured minus his beloved biretta?

  5. I have always liked fedoras and I miss them. They seem distinguished without being ostentatious. OTOH I don’t wear hats either unless going for a walk in the summer.

  6. Men sure still like hats (and I mean hats, not caps) that’s for sure. Indeed the one time I blogged on hats on my own blog has and continues to have so many more hits than any other topic, it isn’t funny:

    I think, basically, what’s needed to bring the hat wearer out in us is just to do it. You may get comments at first, but they’ll turn to admiring comments soon thereafter. Indeed, I occasionally wear a Fedora down to work myself, and I hardly ever go outdoors without some sort of head covering, cap or hat.

  7. This is a really good piece Fr. Longenecker. Yes, I would say it is impractical to wear a hat, but what made them more practical in the past? The only men i see wearing hats regularly are the hasidic jewish men around here in New York. The only thing that could possibly ressurrect male hats are a sharp rise in skin cancer.

  8. Father, It’s ironic that you mention Beau Brummell. He was a style setter, it’s true. But his main innovation was to turn men away from the colorful brocades and dress in somber dark broadcloth. Brummell is the spiritual father of white tie and tails. Of course the demise of dressing up for evenings out or social occasions is worth another article. Nevertheless, the Beau did wear a hat.

    I myself wear hats. In fact wish for the revival of the tricorn. Yes men and women spend too much time indoors as desk jockeys. And our culture encourages dressing like teenagers. I don’t know the answer. Style systems do change over the centuries as perusing costume history books show (The suit started when Louis XIV took off his doublet and put on a Persian coat).

    Still, even despite the trend toward comfort and simplicity, we need to make room for hats!

  9. I happen to have a risk of skin cancer in my family, so I wear a hat everywhere. A ball cap or similar for casual wear or a British driving cap for more formal times. (My students have called it ‘an old man’s hat’, which is also accurate.) 🙂
    I have never owned a hat of the kind seen in 40s films. Not brave enough, I guess.

  10. You mention a straw saturno “for summer”. I once told some students that a character in a film set around 1900 was probably not of sterling character. Why not? Because he continued to wear a summer straw into the fall – showy. (I was right, as it turned out.)

  11. James Spader is a lifelong wearer of hats, selecting the ones that he wears on ‘Blacklist’. A quote, “I wear a hat every day. It has to have a great angle to it, a nice cut to it. And it has to provide shade. I never understand those stingy brims. There’s that little stingy brim you see on fedoras a lot. I like a big brim that creates shade.”

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