Of hats, heads and hegemony

If you are in the habit of watching old movies, it’s hard to avoid comparisons between fashions in years past and today.

Obviously, the costumes in period pieces often look more bizarre (dig that ruffled collar on Queen Elizabeth…check out that hoopskirt on Scarlett O’Hara) than the attire of the future in science fiction films.  It is easier to relate to movies that take place from the 1920’s to the 1950’s because the clothes shown in those films are the direct antecedents of what we wear today.  In particular, consider the hat.

Today the baseball cap is the headwear of choice for men and women – Muslim women excepted.  Also excepted are Mennonite women and Catholic women attending Mass.  The same used to hold for Protestant women attending church.  I don’t know if this is still the case.  I suspect that baseball caps would be considered gauche if not taboo.  For sure, a woman attending church in Boston should never wear a New York Yankees cap.

If you’re big on diversity, take a look at women’s hats on display in old movies.  The range of styles is astounding.  Anarchy rules – anything goes!  Some hats are sensible (e.g., the cloche hats popular in the 1920s) while others reek of frippery and frivolity.  Indeed, women’s hats used to be a reliable source of male amusement if not amazement.  Even small towns had millinery (hat) stores and old hat boxes gathered dust in grandma’s attic.  Has anyone under age 60 ever seen a millinery store?  Or a hatbox?

But this venue is A Voice for Men, and we don’t want to spend too much time on the sopranos.  So let’s shift to baritones and look at male headgear.

The hat serves several purposes.  For men and women a hat keeps the sun off one’s head in the summer and provides warmth in winter.  But men go bald and women do not.  So the danger of sunburn (or skin cancer) is worse in the summer for men; as is the ability to keep the head warm in the winter.  It used to be said that 90% of your body heat was lost through the head; that turned out to be a turban legend.  Even so, if you go out on a cold winter morning with a bare bald head, you will be sorry.

To be sure, a beret is still occasionally seen on a man who frequents bohemian haunts and if you go to Irish/Scottish/British/Celtic fests, the Irish flat cap is much in evidence.  The cowboy hat, practical for working cowboys, is still worn in western states.  Admittedly, “all hat and no cattle” applies to most wearers.

If you hang out anywhere hipsters congregate, you will often see hats reminiscent of something a burlesque comedian would have worn.  That look went out with Pinky Lee.  Unless you’re a bottomless fount of smutty jokes, such a hat looks ridiculous.

Let’s not forget the shaved-head look.  Some men are under the impression that it makes them look like bad asses and display their depilated domes proudly, much as weight-lifters and guys with sleeve tattoos always wear short-sleeve shirts.  I’m not sure if they impress anyone other than each other.

Then there’s the young man – often a thrasher – who always wears a wool cap, even on the hottest day of the year.  Still can’t figure that out.  Keep in mind that no man is required to wear a hat unless it is part of a uniform.

Notice that mature men who maintain a healthy head of hair (even if it has turned, white, silver, or gray) often eschew hats.  If you look through old photographs of President Kennedy, rarely if ever will you see him wearing a hat.  Unlike the family patriarch, Joe Kennedy, JFK had overachieving follicles right up till that fatal day in Dallas in 1963 when Oswald acted alone…or not.

Kennedy appearing hatless when he made his inaugural speech on a cold day in January 1961 sealed the deal.  Subsequently, whenever he appeared in public, he was almost always hatless.  He is often credited with killing off the male hat market in the 1960s, even for men without hirsute noggins.  Since then Presidential heads, no matter how devious, dense, or muddled, have almost always been hatless.  The notable exception was Lyndon Johnson, hardly a working cowboy, who was often photographed wearing a Stetson at his ranch.

As the 1960s progressed, the male baby boomers coming of age were more than happy to display long locks.  Remember, the musical Hair debuted in 1968…and they weren’t referring to armpits or pubic areas.  Of course, some holdouts kept the long hair look on the sides and in the back even as their bald spots spread on top.  As their fathers and grandfathers had learned, a hat is preferable to a combover.

Today, of course, bald spots are usually covered by baseball caps.  Bald spots are rarely a problem for ballplayers, who tend to be young.  Nevertheless, the ballcap is eminently practical for ballplayers.  The brim can be pulled low to block the sun so a fielder can track batted balls without getting hit in the head.  And the cap is usually made of light enough material to keep the fielders from getting heatstroke on a hot day and to allow for airflow.

The real mystery is why are so many people who have never heard of the infield fly rule or sabermetrics wearing baseball caps?  In attempting to answer this question, let’s start by going back a century.

During the era under consideration in this essay (1920’s through 1950’s), there were 16 major league teams.  Each team had 25 roster spots, so at any given time there were only 400 active major leaguers.  Consequently, being a big-league ballplayer was a high-status profession.  When little boys wore baseball caps with the logo of their local team, it was understandable.  It indicated their aspirations.  In a sense, pretending to be a major leaguer was not unlike playing policeman or fireman, though probably not as much fun as playing doctor.

Unless they were coaches, adult men rarely wore baseball caps.  Check out historic photos of crowds at baseball games.  First of all, you notice the crowds are overwhelmingly men.  Second, none of them is wearing a baseball cap.  It’s mostly derbies, homburgs, and the occasional top hat.  In warmer weather, straw boaters (popularly known as skimmers – perhaps the inspiration for the Frisbee) are ubiquitous.

Now look at a contemporary crowd.  Almost everyone is wearing a baseball cap…  moms and dads, grandfathers and grandmothers, boys and girls.  A cap that used to be an integral part of boyhood has now become a staple of adulthood, and not just at the ballpark.

Much like the T-shirt or the bumper sticker, the ballcap displays a message, not necessarily allegiance to a team.  It could be a testimonial to a favorite product (John Deere) or candidate (MAGA), the sartorial equivalent of a commercial.

Inexplicably, one modern fashion statement involving baseball caps has become more and more prominent.  I refer to the wearing of the baseball cap backwards.  When I see adult men wearing a cap this way I can only shake my head and ask why.  The brim was designed to keep the sun out of your eyes, and it can be readily adjusted as the sun moves or the wearer moves.  Unless you are a catcher and have to turn the cap around to accommodate your mask, or you have eyes in the back of your head, there is no point in wearing a cap backwards.  Until recently, the only non-catchers who wore the cap in this manner were little boys and adolescents…the Little Rascals, the Dead End Kids.  So when a grown man wears his cap that way, he is infantilizing himself.  He may think he looks like one cool dude.  Men of previous generations would beg to differ.  Consider the hats they wore.

The top hat used to be an indication of status.  Tallness is associated with dominance, and by adding a few inches of height, the top hat enhanced male dominance.  Admittedly, the stovepipe hat took this to extremes, and bordered on the comical.  Abraham Lincoln, standing 6’4”, hardly needed height enhancement, so the stovepipe hat made him look gawky.  It didn’t work particularly well for short men either (imagine Peter Dinklage in a stovepipe hat).  Only the Cat in the Hat wore it well.

In later decades the top hat became not the hat of daily wear but of formal wear.  It was donned for a night on the town…think top hat and tails and Fred Astaire.  Or it was the headwear of solemn occasions, worn by participants at inaugurations, coronations, or royal weddings…or by undertakers.  Today I don’t know if one could even find a top hat at a men’s store.  If you did find one and wore it in public, you would only invite snickers.

There is one male hat of old worthy of a comeback, however.  I speak of the fedora.

Look at old movies from the 1920s through the 1950s.  Clearly, the hat of choice for men was the fedora.  It was worn by gangsters, reporters, politicians,  businessmen, blue collar men, all sorts of men – even losers (e.g., Elisha Cook in The Maltese Falcon).

Why did it remain in fashion for so long with men in all walks of life?  Let’s just say it was manly.  While women’s hats strayed all over the map, the ubiquitous fedora indicated that men were staying the course.  Women changed their minds as frequently as their fashions, but a man who wore a fedora was a rock of stolidity.

The fedora worked well with almost any male attire.  You could wear it with a bomber jacket, overalls, an overcoat or a suit.  Best of all was the pinstriped double-breasted suit.  Being vertical, pinstripes tended to emphasize height, enhancing male stature .  Though the New York Yankees were not the first baseball team to wear pinstripes, they were the first to standardize the style (rumor has it that the Yankees introduced pinstripes to their home uniforms to minimize Babe Ruth’s girth in his mature years).  Opponents perceived the Yankees as being taller (i.e., more dominant) than they already were.

Even without pinstripes, the double-breasted suit is an intriguing piece of attire.  On its face it would seem to be impractical, since the overlapping closure requires more material than a single-breasted suit.  And what’s with all those useless extra buttons?  The wearer must be buttoned-up; with a single-breasted suit, you can button up or not without attracting undue attention.  In old movies, the double-breasted jacket often had padded shoulders, which added heft or gravitas to the wearer.

The perception of a man clad in a padded, pinstriped double-breasted suit and a fedora was not unlike that of a linebacker in full uniform.  Compare that image to the contemporary hatless man in a skinny hipster suit (the one that looks like the wearer has outgrown it but can’t afford to buy another one).  The impression given is that of an adolescent – when growth hormone went into overdrive – the awkward age, it used to be called.  A full-grown man has clothing that fits.

For sure, the image of men in old movies is an improvement over today’s casual male with his ballcap and his T-shirt (untucked, of course, thanks to the fashion trend started by obese men).  And let’s not forget the droopy-drawer teenagers whose trousers defy gravity and whose underwear comes dangerously close to revealing skid marks.  How could such attire invite any response but snickers?  There was a time when male adolescents looked to the future and tried to dress like men.  Today they look to the past and try to dress like boys.

Now I’m hardly an exponent of sartorial elegance, and if you could see me at my keyboard, you would surely agree.  I prefer substance to style, and I’ve always felt a slavish devotion to fashion is a waste of time and money and arguably downright decadent.   I must admit, however, that style often indicates a presence or lack of substance, and I believe the fedora tilts towards substance.  When worn properly the fedora, perched atop a squinting or glowering countenance, conveys that you are not a man to be trifled with.  It worked for men in the past.  It could work for men in the future.

Consider the real-life example of the four members (Red Stromwall, Max Herman, Ed Benson, and Harry Crowder) of the Hat Squad, an elite unit of the Robbery Division of the Los Angeles PD in the 1950’s.  All of them were tall and they all wore snap-brimmed fedoras.  The optics were overwhelming.  Collectively, they struck fear in the hearts of SoCal miscreants, who usually wilted in their presence.  The third degree was rarely necessary.

So given a fedora worn at the proper angle, there is no need to snarl, rant, or even raise your voice.  Without uttering a word, you convey “None of your lip, sister,” to any females in the vicinity, thus precluding the need to deploy one’s pimp hand.

Yes, gentlemen, if the fedora makes a comeback, it could conceivably diminish violence!  It’s a win-win situation for both sexes!

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