You’ve probably seen me around campus sporting my fedora or, if I’m in a particularly jovial mood, my top hat. And you’ve probably thought to yourself, “The 1950s called, they’re missing that guy who complains a lot.” However, I assure you I am not at the end of a fading trend, but quietly awaiting the resurgence of the wide-brimmed hat. And I am prepared to wait as long as necessary.
Wide-brim hats are incredibly useful. Plop one down to save a seat at dinner, cover your eyes for a nap, keep from getting wet in a rainstorm, celebrate a player scoring three goals at a hockey game or throw one with razor sharp edges to lethal effect — the possibilities are endless.
So why has such a versatile piece of high fashion fallen into disuse? Many people claim that the trend against fedora-sporting began when JFK did not wear a hat to his inauguration. While it is true he was not wearing a hat as he delivered his inaugural address, there is photographic evidence that it was resting on his chair behind him. There are also many other pictures showing him sporting a lovely silk top hat throughout his inauguration day.
There is one Kennedy conspiracy that is more fantasy than fact. Like all conspiracies, it does have a grain of truth; Kennedy never much cared for hats, but he was part of a larger fashion trend that started long before his inauguration.
There are a great variety of theories that seek to explain just why hats disappeared from fashion. Most explanations in print willing to look beyond Kennedy are struck by two paradoxical explanations: technology and hippies.
Technology was making hats unnecessary in a variety of ways. As coal-burning factories left urban centers, cleaner air meant no one needed to wear a hat to keep soot out of one’s hair. Cars were also major factors in the decline of hats for simple logistical reasons to which I can attest; it’s not easy getting into a car wearing a six-inch top hat. Or even a fedora! As suburbs grew in the 1950s, people spent more and more time in cars where hats, in addition to being cumbersome, were no longer necessary as in-car heating systems grew more effective.
Then there is the Hippie Hypothesis. Wanting to reject the establishment and its hats of authority, youth of the 1960s dismissed hats of all types. Given the propensity of hippies to don long hair, hats also posed logistical problems for their wearers. Western culture was moving toward informality.
While all of these factors plausibly contribute to the decline of the hat, the truth is that no one has come up with a unified theory to fully explain it. Compulsory hat-wearing among men and women seems to have ended with the 1920s. Over the course of the decade, the Sears, Roebuck Catalog received a precipitous drop in hat orders, with annual sales of men’s hats falling from 12 to 5 million. Despite a brief — and insubstantial — resurgence in the 1950s, the downward trend continued. In 1970, fewer than 1 million hats were ordered.
Interestingly, these facts are all covered in Stanley Lieberson’s “A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions, and Culture Change,” published by the Yale Press. In one chapter, the author offers data which describes an increasing popularity in nicknames in the phone book concurrent with the fall of hat popularity, lending some credibility to the suggestion that top hats and fedoras simply did not match the rising culture of informality. If I were to throw on a tie-dye shirt and walk around bare-foot, I would likely leave my top hat at home, too.
It is by this sensibility that I maintain my high taste and fashionable sartorial choices. If any would care to join me in my crusade against modern informality, all that need be done is to stroll down Elm Street to one of the last remaining hat shops in this country, Del Monico Hatter. The experience of walking into that showroom, surrounded by walls of hats, warm the heart just as fedoras warm the head — and keep it forever in style.
Brian C. Thompson is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.