Magazine | December 20, 2010, Issue

Hats Checked

John Derbyshire puts a lid on it

The other day I stepped into an elevator while wearing a hat. Seeing ladies in the elevator, I removed my hat. One of the ladies, who was of a certain age, complimented me on my manners. “Not many men would know to do that nowadays.”

Not many men need to. As someone or other has noted, ours is the first civilization since antiquity in which the generality of people do not dance and do not wear hats. This common hatlessness seems to have started around 1960, like so many other malign developments. I have heard it blamed on John F. Kennedy, our first hatless president, though it seems to me more likely that the automobile industry is the true culprit. The aerodynamic, low-ceilinged style of the post-WWII auto body is just not compatible with hat-wearing. In any case, whatever role JFK may have played in the change was canceled out by his wife’s having popularized the pillbox hat, keeping elegant women hatted (and “milliner” a word in current use) for another half-decade.

Hats are now either ceremonial or recreational. The hat featured in my elevator incident was the latter: a gay rattan item purchased on a nearby Caribbean island in a mood of blithe holiday spirit. I do possess a more formal hat, a bluish-gray number in the style I think is called “Tyrolean” (though minus the feather). It was an impulse buy one very cold day shortly after I had read somewhere that we lose dramatic amounts of body heat through our scalps. I still wear it as a head-warmer in the depths of winter, but not otherwise — a utilitarian approach quite at odds with the proper spirit of hattedness.

That spirit was universal not long ago. “If you want to get ahead, get a hat!” said the advertisement in my father’s newspaper. Dad never did get ahead much, but he had a decent collection of hats: countryman’s cloth caps for everyday wear and a trilby for weddings and funerals. My mother had hats too, and all the accessories — hat pins, hat boxes, veils, stands. The main item of headgear for us 1950s urchins was the school cap — compulsory at my secondary school. To be seen in the town without your school cap was a detention-level offense.

Two or three generations before that, it was unthinkable for a respectable adult male to walk the street bare-headed. In George Gissing’s novel A Life’s Morning, the heroine’s father, who is a typical Gissing loser — a middle-aged clerk “marked for ill-fortune” — is riding a train on an errand for his employer when his hat blows away through the carriage window. Panicked, our clerk buys a new hat with a ten-pound note of his employer’s, and pockets the change. The theft is discovered; a chain of disasters follows; and four chapters later the man is dead by his own hand — all because “it was impossible to go through Hebsworth with uncovered head, or to present himself hatless at the office of Legge Brothers.”

#page#If you wear a hat every day in the present age, it is probably a component of some uniform. Even in this zone, though, there has been a falling-off. John O’Sullivan and I once indulged ourselves in some conversational reminiscences of General Franco’s Spain, which we had both visited. One of the most striking features of the place, we agreed, was the black tricorn hat worn by Franco’s police force, the Guardia Civil. It looked like some especially unwieldy kind of large cooking utensil, and was conspicuous at several hundred yards’ distance. In the kinder ’n’ gentler Spain that followed Franco, the tricornio has gone the way of the Generalissimo himself, superseded by a nondescript kepi-style item, the gorra teresiana.

Beyond police headwear is the vast family of military hats. One of the oddest is the garrison cap — that’s the soft one with a fore-and-aft crease, the one that falls naturally flat when taken off, ready to be stuffed in a uniform pocket. The garrison cap is familiarly known in the U.S. Marine Corps by a name too indelicate to print in a family magazine; and by a slang term an order of magnitude even more indelicate than that in the British Army. Elsewhere, too: When I raised this topic with an American friend, he told me of an ancestor of his who had served in the officer corps of pre-WWI Austria-Hungary. The officer-ancestor had been charged with introducing the garrison cap to a large unit of highly mixed ethnicity. The caps were passed around through the ranks with much mirth, accompanied by the corresponding indelicacy uttered exclamatorily in German, Hungarian, Polish, Serbian, Slovenian, Ruthenian, etc.

The main problem with military headgear is getting it on and off to parade-ground standards of precision. In the Royal Navy the “On Caps” command always causes a major local increase in entropy, even when not carried out on a rolling ship’s deck. Under all but the most sadistic officers, “On Caps” is followed by a “Stand Easy” to allow for adjustment. (“On Caps,” though nearly impossible to execute satisfactorily, is at least simple. It must once have vied for unpopularity with the “Pile Arms” command Evelyn Waugh had so much sport with in his Sword of Honour novels: “The odd numbers of the front rank will seize the rifles of the even numbers with the left hand crossing the muzzles, magazines turned outwards, at the same time raising the piling swivels with the forefinger and thumb of both hands . . .” and so on for most of a page in the 1935 Manual of Elementary Drill.)

Other than cold scalps, the biggest downside of the Hatless Age is that we have nothing to throw in the air when jubilant, except at college graduations and military passings-out.

At the same Election an ordinary Fellow — a Hatter who was zealous for our Cause came suddenly up to Johnson and embracing him cried out — Ah Sir ’tis no Time now to mind making of Hats! [Johnson] made answer in the same gay Tone, No Sir — Hats are of no use to us now but to throw up in the Air & huzza with.

 – Mrs. Piozzi, Anecdotes of Dr. Johnson

What’s that? No, I have never owned a derby.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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