To paraphrase Roland Barthes, hats are worn to be seen and to be read. They are signs of who we are or want to be. Because hats, unlike shoes or coats, are worn near eye-level, they are the first item of apparel offered for view. The stranger approaching from a distance reads the hat before he sees the face or figure and, at a glance, learns a lot about the person beneath it.
It is not so long ago that hats played a critical role in signifying social status. Upper and upper-middle-class men wore top hats, made of beaver or silk, in black or fawn. Working men covered their heads with cloth caps. The middle classes wore hard, black, shellacked hats with oval crowns and small brims, known as bowlers in Britain, derbies in the United States.
Because the sumptuary laws that had prescribed what could be worn in public had become a distant memory by the mid-19th century, people wore hats not only to identify themselves as members of or aspirants to a particular social class, but to show disdain for or to parody the pretensions of class identification. The Planters Peanut Company dressed Mr Peanut in a top hat to signify that the peanut – once suitable only for the poor or for animals – was now a snack for sophisticates. Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and a generation of English music-hall comedians wore bowlers to accentuate the contrast between their outré manners and those of the respectable middle classes.
The bowler, as Fred Miller Robinson points out in The Man in the Bowler Hat (1993), had been designed as a riding hat for English horsemen, gamekeepers, hunters, cabmen and others who required the protection of a ‘hard’ hat. It was also perfectly suited as a railway hat: it could be worn while boarding or disembarking and stayed in place despite the jostle of the crowd at the station. As the bowler moved with the railway from the country to the city, and as the ranks of the middle classes, real and aspiring, expanded to include railway conductors and clerks, self-employed merchants and shopkeepers, factory foremen, detectives, butlers, book-keepers and bankers, it became something of a uniform, indicating an acceptance of modernity. Early 20th-century photographs of street scenes and Sunday picnics show a sea of bowler hats, with only a few cloth caps on view.
Fashion is found at the intersection of uniformity and particularity. Almost at the same time as the bowler became a sign of modernity and middle-class status or aspirations, it took on the additional weight of serving as a marker of personality or individuality. Gents wore theirs at a different slant from dandies; the brims of the country gentlemen’s were curled differently from those of the settled bourgeoisie; Charlie Chaplin placed his almost diagonally across the top of his head; Edward, Prince of Wales angled his upward, seeming to signify the slippery slope between masculine grace and sexual predation; the sluggers of Bandits’ Roost in New York City tilted their crowns downward almost to eye-level.
The fedora, which, at least in the United States, succeeded the bowler in the mid-20th century as part of the middle-class uniform, was even more malleable. It came in dozens of different colours and several fabrics, including felt, and was easily personalised by turning down the brim at the front, the back or the sides, and pinching in the crown. There were business fedoras, hipster fedoras and gangster fedoras. Sinatra’s did not look like Bogart’s and neither was poised as ominously as James Cagney’s in his gangster films.
The same sort of transformation – from a signifier of class status to a marker of personality – occurred in women’s hats. This change, part of a more general ‘democratisation’ of social life, was nowhere more manifest than in the immigrant quarters of American cities, where working-class daughters, to the dismay of their elders, donned the fanciest bird of paradise feather hat that they could afford. In the Old Country, mothers told their daughters, only middle and upper-class women wore hats with fancy trimmings; plainer women wore plainer headgear. In the New World, their daughters replied, only ‘greenies’ wore kerchiefs or unadorned bonnets or shawls. ‘Smart’ girls who wanted to move up in the world by getting a better job or fetching a decent husband had to look the part, and that required a fashionable hat.
What was common to New World and Old, women and men, was the necessity of covering one’s head in public. Only the poorest went bareheaded. It was impolite, impolitic and an insult to those around you to be on the street without a head-covering which gave the strangers you passed some sign of who you might be. Because ladies’ hats were such elaborate contraptions, they were kept on in selected public settings, such as the theatre, opera, restaurant and nightclub. For men and boys, however, it was an act of grave social consequence not to take off one’s hat indoors. Boys who wore their hats into classrooms were sent to the principal’s office to be taught their manners. In what is perhaps the most nightmarish of the Dr Seuss books, the ‘cat’ who enters the home after the mother has gone out is clearly up to no good because he keeps his hat on.
The social necessity that hats be worn outside and removed inside resulted in a serious storage problem. One solution for top-hat wearers was the collapsible opera hat, invented by a Frenchman in 1837 and worn by gentlemen who, unable to afford seats in the more spacious boxes, had to watch the opera with their hats on their laps. It was the Americans who came up with the hat-check girl. The 1920s Prohibition nightclub set itself up on the boundary between public and private realms. Patrons were screened at the door and those who belonged were welcomed inside and made to feel ‘at home’ by a friendly maître d’ and hostess. It was only fitting that men doff their hats on entering. But what were they to do with them? If put under or alongside tables the hats got dirty, lost and occasionally stolen, and they took up too much space when put on empty chairs. Nightclub and restaurant owners decided to rent closet-size booths to concessionaires who hired attractive young women to check the hats. Everyone came out ahead (except for the women behind the counters, who had to battle for the tips they then had to hand over to their bosses).
The story of the hat-check girl, borrowed in part from an A.J. Liebling New Yorker article, is told in Neil Steinberg’s shaggy-dog history, Hatless Jack. The book floats amiably back and forth, but spends most time on JFK. Steinberg’s thesis is simply stated. Once upon a time, everyone wore hats; then no one did; Kennedy was not to blame.
Almost from the moment Kennedy announced his candidacy for the presidency, he was lobbied by Alex Rose, a Democratic Party powerhouse and president of the United Hatters, Cap and Millinery Workers’ International Union, to put on a hat, any hat: fedora, top hat, derby or homburg. Bowing perhaps to the pressure from the hatters or anxious to begin differentiating his administration from that of his predecessor, Eisenhower, who had broken with tradition and worn a homburg to his inaugural, Kennedy, as president-elect, put on a black silk top hat for his. When he rose to deliver his address, however, he left his hat on his chair.
For the rest of his presidency, Kennedy was seldom, if ever, seen or photographed wearing a hat, in large part because he believed that, with his thatch of chestnut hair and unruly forelock dangling over his right eyebrow, he looked better without one. Although the decline in hat sales and hat-wearing preceded his presidency (his hatlessness was, Steinberg tells us, the rule rather than the exception for his generation), the photogenic and hatless president was held responsible for the death of the industry.
Steinberg sometimes strains too hard to give weight to his arguments. At one point, describing how going without a hat could signify masculine vitality, he draws a line ‘from Rousseau to the general hatlessness of Kennedy and his generation’. At another, he argues that Kennedy’s dislike of being photographed in hats ‘reflected a reluctance that goes back to ancient Greece. A hat was an enhancer of masculinity … but there is something effeminate about being caught wearing one. Thus while Julius Caesar certainly wore a hat, he wasn’t carved into stone wearing it.’ His grossest generalisation is that ‘the decline of hats’, which Kennedy represented but did not cause, was ‘a result of the shift of American society from a network of men so concerned with acceptability and conformity that they’d all wear the identical object on their heads, to an atomised world where individuals revel in their uniqueness and fiercely protect their right to do whatever they please’. Who were these Americans who were ‘so concerned with acceptability and conformity’ that they wore ‘identical’ hats on their heads? Is Steinberg referring to the mythic gray-flannel suited men of the 1950s in their fedoras? Probably not, as he has already told us that the hatless craze, which was in full swing by the mid-1920s, preceded the ascendancy of the fedora. Is he referring instead to an earlier generation of bowler-wearers? It’s hard to know.
In group photos, men in bowlers or fedoras might at first glance appear to have exactly the same type of hat, but in fact there were enormous variations. Wearing a bowler in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a fedora in mid-century, or a baseball cap today did not and does not signify that one is a member of some faceless herd. Hats can and do reveal, disguise or parody social status, while at the same time highlighting aspects of individual personality.
Why, then, if men’s hats have been such a multivariate sign of class and personality, did they go the way of the corset? For the simple reason that they became, like the corset, unnecessary, uncomfortable encumbrances. Hats served to mark the boundaries between inside and out, private and public, home and street, middle and working class. But as these boundaries have eroded, so has the social significance of the hat. Wearing one is today a matter of choice rather than social necessity.