Father’s Day this weekend. We should probably say something about that.
Hmm. Something… sigh. No. How about something else then? Maybe…
Men! Do you normally wear a hat out of the house? If you answered “no,” you can thank John F Kennedy.
In the America of the 1950’s and before, men always wore a hat out of doors. Even the street mugger would wear a little cap along with his mask and gun, because if you were breaking the law, the last thing you would want to do is stand out at a distance. Naturally, the hat a man wore told a lot about his beliefs and status.
But John Kennedy ended the habit nearly single-handedly and hats quickly became the province of old men, while Kennedy set fashion and made himself seem young in the process. Quite famously, Kennedy wore a hat out of the White House in the run-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, so that when he disappeared from public view for a time, journalists could speculate that he was sick with a cold. It was just as well, of course, that hats fell out of fashion, as the longer hair of the later Sixties made hats less necessary and harder to keep on.
There were attempts to bring back men’s hats, of course. During the disco era, there were stylish hats that glowed in the blacklights of the dance floors. And men do wear hats today, of course, but they are almost always baseball cap-type hats that hawk brand names and beliefs, from fertilizer products, truck makes, sports teams, Disney characters, national parks, veteran status, superhero logos, and, of course, beer factions.
What does this all have to do with us?
As we hope you know, we, being the Historical Society, are the stewards of a Hat Museum. Our Milliner, “Mr. Lyzon” – aka Walter King – specialized in upscale, one-of-a-kind millinery creations. While we have literally dozens of unique ladies hats, what we do not have is much more than a dozen men’s hats. Why?, we are often asked. Did Walter make men’s hats?, is the other common question. Traditionally a millinery makes women’s hats, while a hatter – as in: “mad as a” – makes men’s hats.
Why were hatters considered to be mad? You may wish you had not asked.
As the story goes, camel urine was originally used to soften the hairs of whatever creature was being used to make a hat. Since camels weren’t always readily available, the hatters started to use their own urine in the felting process. (You can’t make this stuff up)
One hatter, who was being treated for syphilis, was given a drug continuing mercury and his felting was found to be superior. A bit of sleuthing and it was discovered that mercury was the magic ingredient, so hence mercury started being used in the felting process. That worked well, until it was discovered that hatters suffered from dementia at an early age. We aren’t sure what is being used to felt these days, but it has to be a step up.
Fortunately for us, we have generous members who have gifted us some men’s hats. It is interesting to see the various styles and as always, we wondered if there is a reason – other than fashion – why they vary in design.
The top hat was a French design. It was basically a shorter version of the stovepipe hat, not topping 8 inches. According to the Mayfair Gazette, this silky black hat “frightened people, made children cry, and dogs bark.” John Heatherington, the London haberdasher who dared to wear it, was arrested for “having appeared on the Public Highway wearing upon his head a tall structure having a shining lustre and calculated to frighten timid people.” Sounds like a smart marketing ploy, since top hats became a sign of prosperity in future years.
Stovepipe and top hats were handy not only to protect the wearer from the elements, but also to store important papers which one may care to keep dry. Magicians have found them of great use for centuries.
With regards to the Stovepipe Hat, we are sure a vision of Abraham Lincoln popped into all our heads. His trademark hat upon his 6’4” frame was not easily forgotten. Some believe this was intentional, since every politician strives to stand out in a crowd, after first determining which way the crowd was already heading.
Another popular style for a man’s hat is the bowler. Created in 1849 by Lock & Co. Hatters, it was said to be commissioned by a nobleman who complained that his gamekeeper’s top hats kept getting knocked off his head by low-hanging branches. Their chief hatmaker, Thomas Bowler, designed a rounded, short hat which would stay on easier – hence the name Bowler Hat.
Fedoras are a common style of hat. This wide brimmed hat with a crown that is indented and pitched, typically has a ribbon hat band. Oddly, they were first worn by the lead character in the play Fédora, written for Sarah Bernhardt of all people. In the title role of Princess Fédora Romanoff, Sarah wore a soft brimmed hat with a center crease. The hat was very useful to protect from inclement weather.
The style was quickly adopted by women, especially women’s rights activists. In the mid 1920s, Prince Edward of Britain – later briefly Edward VIII – adopted the style and it later became a mark of prohibitionists and gangsters, though probably not for that reason. Partially due to its popularity in Hollywood, the fedora became known as “a part of the man.” And let us not forget the cult Fedora-wearing figure that is Indiana Jones.
The Fedora’s cousin, the Trilby, sports a narrower brim and lower crown, it’s name taken from the 1894 novel of that name One of the advantages of this shorter hat was that it fit in automobiles more easily, a quickly rising concern.
There are other styles. The rounded straw hat known as a Boater is now mostly confined to political conventions. Cowboy hats are, oddly, unisex and come in many substyles in all price ranges. Berets are common amongst women, but are mostly worn only by military, scouts, and French men. There are a variety of winter hats for men, but that is more about keeping one’s ears attached than making a fashion statement, though the knitted Sherpa beanies with the long strings must be some kind of statement, but who knows what that might be exactly.
So, Father’s Day. Yes, if you still need some kind of gift for your father and nothing reasonable presents itself, you can always buy him a hat. What beer does he drink?