Clothes Sense

Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Worry?

The lost virtues of stylish headgear.

Hats arouse fully as much feeling as hairstyles–or they would if enough of them were being worn. For 30 years we have been living in the Bareheaded Age, worrying intensely about our hair. Many of us don’t even remember the time when people would no more go outdoors without a hat than they would without shoes. The exact character of your hat mattered a lot then, much as the look of your hair does now. Your hat confirmed your outfit, putting the final seal on whatever else you wore, crowning your image and arming your ego for social and professional life–or just for itself. During the summer in the country, my grandfather would put on his hat to go down to the end of the driveway and get the letters out of the mailbox. I would laugh at him, free of the requirement myself; but in his youth, even kids wore hats whenever they went outdoors.

Hair rose up and drove out hats in the 1960s–rose up, spread out, and flowed down in merciless torrents, sweeping away conventional hats as if they represented all that was loathsome in civilized life. A few cute hats, most of them faintly satirical, costumey, and historical, were worn by a few cute people for momentary effect. But the old hat rule was swiftly abolished. Off came the top hat at the opera and the elegant homburg or fedora for street wear, along with the whole range of casual hats and caps for men.

S wept away, too, were all the charming, infinitely various feminine hats that once made women feel charming and infinitely various themselves. Common usage once allowed hat makers to find markets for many heterogeneous styles, for much discreetly suggestive fantasy in shape and trim. Absurdity was the obvious risk then, given the vast scope of hat design for women. Danny Kaye once sang of “The little ones, the big ones, the sat-on-by-a-pig ones,/ The foolish ones that perch, and the ghoulish ones that lurch.” But a man might still be seduced by an irresistible feminine brim, curving and dipping to offset a meaningful glance. The desired effect appeared in the movies on the heads of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich and their glamorous colleagues, such as Gene Tierney in Laura in her scene at the Algonquin with Clifton Webb.

Along with much else, women’s hats are no longer a normal part of the mating game. Women’s hats are out there, but they’re all optional, and the range has shrunk. They come in very few basic shapes (like dresses), and nobody gets any basic training in hat choice or hat management, since real allure is felt to reside in hair, not in hats. Real absurdity, too, of course.

B ut winter is coming. The Hair Revolution was no help in bitter weather, and for a while everybody but Floridians and Californians simply froze above the neck. Lately healthy, utilitarian hats have returned in force, along with athletic footgear and down jackets, and there’s even a certain limited stylishness in recent examples. Fur is back, too, as are delicious pile fabrics, so that luxury can be combined with utility. Meanwhile thousands of watch caps, ear-flap caps, and wool berets are available from street vendors to provide instant warmth for passers-by without much regard for expressive charm. In this day of virtual uniformity, it’s curious that whenever a woman wears any hat at all, somebody is bound to say, “I love your hat!”–as if out of subliminal nostalgia for the truly great days.

Nobody says this to men about their baseball caps, the ubiquity of which has reduced choices for men just as general hatlessness has diminished the possibilities for women. What are old-fashioned hat-loving men to do? Classic hats appear pretentious and dandified. But such men could never wear–can barely stomach–headgear with the inelegance, the laddishness, the rakishness, the nerve of a baseball cap, especially one worn backward.

Nevertheless, let us hope that the Return of the Hat is at hand, inaugurated by men in their baseball caps, just as the strongest and longest-lasting fashion changes always have been inspired by men. The hat itself was a male invention and a male privilege until women got tired of coifs, veils, and wimples in the Renaissance. Then they daringly adopted hats to profit from the erotic charge male elements always add to feminine modes. Many women have done this again in the last decade or so, usually sticking to masculine sports hat shapes, baseball caps among them, or east European rabbinical effects to combat the cold blast.

I bought a fine example of that kind of winter hat. It surrounds my head in a warm nimbus of fake fur, my brow, ears, and nape encompassed by golden foxy fleece, my pate upholstered with plushy leopard pelt, my beardless face mitigating the rabbinical flavor. I’ve also acquired a neat hat that makes a black, furry sphere out of my whole skull, leaving some wisps of my hair to curl up my cheeks and down my forehead, Russian heroine style. More risky, since I’m not tall, is my cavalier hat in silvery, streaked brown and black velvet, with a biggish mobile brim for folding up and down at will, fore and aft or amidships.

Short, small women have to remember that they can quickly resemble a mushroom in anything too big or a child in anything too cute. Medium-sized or large and tall women have no such problem and tend to look good in any kind of hat. They only have to remember to let enough of their face show and not to let the hat flatten them on top, so that their full-sized, shapely head and speaking eyes will support the hat’s dashing impact, and the hat itself won’t appear to jam a lid on the body’s expressive means. Advice to all: Study the older royals for the way they manage good proportions, especially the British Queen Mum, and don’t forget to study your own full-length hatted reflection–front, back, and profile–before hitting the street. Absurdity forever lurks.