Hats Off!

Hats Off! 

By Patrick F. Cannon

Although it’s impossible to know for certain, there seems to be no evidence that cave men wore hats. I suspect that their simple tools were unequal to the task of cutting hair, so there was a sufficient mop on top to keep away the cold.

Ruins scattered about the Middle East provide evidence that ancient civilizations like the Assyrians, Babylonians and Egyptians liked to have a hat or headdress to complete their outfits. I suspect the lower orders had to make do with a bit of cloth to keep the Sun at bay. I understand the modern version is called a bullmoose.

If one is to believe later artists, Jesus favored a hatless page boy, as did his disciples. His Roman overlords also seemed to favor the hatless look, although for formal occasions a simple laurel wreath was deemed de rigueur. The wreath also tends to adorn the numerous portrait busts of Romans one sees in the antiquities collections of biggish museums.

By the Middle Ages, however, hats were fairly common. Kings, of course, wore crowns, which were considered the top hats of the time. The court jester (see Danny Kaye’s movie of the same name) wore the first of the silly hats, which featured multiple pom poms. The lower nobility were allowed to wear lesser crowns called cornets as a way of blowing their own horns. The serfs had to make do with hats made from the local grasses, thus the term “serf and turf.”

With the Renaissance came new prosperity and the first recorded hat craze. Fine wool and silk were used and jaunty feathers began sprouting. Initially, all were a bit on the floppy side, but the invention of the blockhead permitted shaping and stiffening. The famed Three Musketeers brought hat fashion to new heights, making France the center of the chapeau industry. By the middle of the 18th Century, a gentleman could choose between the bicorn, tricorn or unicorn. The bicorn could be worn fore and aft or side to side, depending upon the whim of the owner. Women’s hats became fantastical creations, and were often topped with birdcages (real birds included) or model ships at full sail.

This excess came to a halt with the American and French revolutions. In France in particular, fancy hats went away with the heads of their owners. As the 19th Century progressed, hat rationalization proceeded apace, and men everywhere were adorned with the Derby (called a Bowler in England, for reasons that seem sensible to them), the Homburg, the Top Hat, the Trilby and the classic Fedora, all made of felt in the blockhead technique.

As a young lad starting out in the business world in the mid 1960s, these styles were still au currant. After Memorial Day, they were replaced with straw hats, including the stiff brimmed Boater. But woe betides the heedless chap who wore them after Labor Day! But had I just been a bit more alert, I would have noticed that change was afoot. John F. Kennedy, a hero to the young, had taken to going bare headed! Although I had myself bought a fedora, eventually I felt empowered enough to consign it to the top of the closet.

(I must pause here to pay tribute to the French beret. After some 500 years, it still has its adherents. It’s particularly popular in military circles, since it provides a certain jauntiness that the old caps lacked. They are still worn by civilians, of course, and their effect is heightened by a burning cigarette hanging from ones lip, in the manner of Jean Paul Belmondo, or his spiritual father, Jean Gabin.)

Fashions, of course, come and go. For example, the fedora seems to have made a comeback, albeit in a miniature form, atop the heads of slight young men called hipsters. No one had ever adequately explained just what a hipster is, but it seems to have something to do with wearing black and displaying copious tattoos.

But for the last several years, it is the cap, not the hat, which has gained the most favor. Its rise has been insidious. Perhaps you recall Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds? Early on, we see a few birds here and there, just as we might on a normal day. Then, slowly but inexorably the number of winged creatures increases until their numbers become ominous. Just so with the ubiquitous baseball cap. When returning from Florida recently by air, I counted 16 heads with caps upon them in the seats in front of me, including on three women. They didn’t attack me, but I was fearful.

As a young lad, I played some baseball and proudly wore the game’s signature cap. I remember you had to shape the bill to fit the current fashion. When I stopped playing (curses on the hated curve ball), I stopped wearing its caps. I confess that I now wear similar caps when I play golf. When I leave the course, they return to their rightful place in the trunk of my car.

There was a time when wearing any kind of hat indoors was considered boorish. I can recall when gentlemen took their hats off even when they entered an elevator, much less a restaurant. Now, one sees baseball caps on the heads on men and women of all ages in even the best restaurants. And though the bill was meant to keep the sun out of ones eyes, the most fashion forward of cap wearers reverse it, presumably to keep it off the backs of their necks. I haven’t checked, but perhaps artificial light has unseen rays that addle the brain. There must be some reason why caps never leave heads.

The lack of dress codes generally gives us freedoms we should all embrace. Artfully torn jeans, liberal sentiments or obscene epithets on our T-shirts, $300 sneakers, copious tattoos – all let us advertise a new kind of individualistic uniformity, one that lets us relax as we escape the shackles of a more restrictive if more elegant and decorous past.


Copyright 2017, Patrick F. Cannon




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