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Historic Hat Styles

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The Bowler Hat


The bowler, perhaps, like no other hat before or since, stands unambiguously as a symbol for an age, a passage in western civilization. The bowler hat was created in 1850 for an English game warden, James Coke. It was intended as a riding hat that Mr. Coke could count on for hard hat protection as he rode his steed through his protectorate and looked out for poachers. It soon became, as Fred Miller Robinson wrote in The Man in the Bowler Hat: His History and Iconography, “ . . . an emblem through the then-incredible changes that industrialism was engendering - but as an emblem of many things, a sign of the times. It became clear to me very early on that I was studying modern life by tracing the meanings of this sign. And more, I was gaining a perspective on modern life that was fair to people’s real experience of it.” A look at who was wearing bowler hats, from the mid-19th Century onward, tells a lot about the this style’s resonance as a symbol for its time. Professor Robinson said, “As more and more bowler-hatted figures turned up in my study, they seemed to express something textured and true about la vie moderne. Gamekeepers, squires, street vendors, omnibus drivers, counterjumpers, bankers, union men, women on horseback and in cabaret acts, detectives and hanging judges, dictators and bums—-all of these seemed more important in their relations than in their variety, however elusive those relations and seemingly random that variety.”

The variety, of course, is significant. Hats always denoted rank in society, for example, gentlemen wore top hats (and cocked hats before top hats) while the lower social strata wore cloth caps (picture Dickens’ street urchins). Everyman (and woman too if she was so inclined to push the social-fashion envelope) was wearing a bowler. Whether the wearer was making a statement about his liberation, or being glib or ironic, the fact is that both the union man and the banker wore the same hat. Something important was being conveyed through this simple article of headwear. The bowler hat marked a change, and the “modern man” by wearing one, wanted the world to know that he was part of it.

The Fedora Hat

Fedora Hat GraphicHumphrey Bogart and James Cagney. Clark Kent and FDR. What happened to the Bowler and the Top Hat? After all, for most of the 20th Century, up until 1960 when John Kennedy took off his hat at his presidential inauguration, men were not considered dressed for work without a hat. In that century, the fedora was king (also known as a trilby in Europe) supplanting, in short order, all other styles for men. Although the style is mostly associated with men, the name “Fedora” comes from the heroine of French playwright Victorien Sardou’s drama presented in Paris in 1882. She wore the hat style that would become the hallmark of movie tough guys, Chicago gangsters, private eyes, newspaper reporters—in fact by the 1930s, virtually every man who put on a suit of cloths topped off with a fedora. If you are reading this, and your grandfather came from either Europe or North America, chances are he wore a fedora. Today, the fedora is, hands down, the best selling men’s style (we’re talking full size hat-not ball caps). The safari style, a fedora crown with a brim turned down in the front and the back, received a huge boost with the Indian Jones movies where Indy’s hat was emblematic of the man. When we in the hat business engage our fantasy of men’s hats coming back in general fashion, we picture a fedora. The fedora was, and can be again, everyman’s hat—the true successor to the bowler. Snap the brim and let your girlfriend know “Here’s looking at you kid.”

The Beret

Beret Hat graphicAlthough worn as military headgear in ancient Greece, the origin of the beret is traced to the Basques, people living on both the French and Spanish side of the Pyrenees Mountains. Centuries ago, the Basques were great fishermen and sailors, a fact that might explain the appearance of a very similar hat in Scotland. Both the Scotch tam and the beret are woven in one piece without a seam or a binding. The original Basque beret was either navy blue or red, but today the beret is available in a wide array of colors. Beret ImageFew items of clothing have been adopted by so many varied groups of people living in different periods of history as the beret. In WW11, the French Resistance movement, the Maquis, wore the Basque beret. Because it was the most common French head-wear, the Maquis was able to wear it without bringing undo suspicion to this covert operation. The covert military connotation was propelled further when the beret was taken up by special forces, often with the suggestion of ‘undress’ uniform, such as USA Green Berets, Black Berets (USA Rangers), UN Blue Berets, to name a few. It was a short leap for these sub-surface ciphers to have been embraced by artists and revolutionaries. Che Guevara, a hero of the Cuban revolution, made the beret a worldwide symbol of the revolutionary guerilla fighter. The Guardian Angels, a vigilante group who patrols the subways and streets of some of the world’s major cities, wears red berets. And who can forget that American artist and revolutionary, Monica Lewinsky hugging President Clinton in her beret?

The Baseball Cap

baseball cap graphicThe baseball cap in an American icon. It is in fact the only hat style that is an American creation. Its popularity in the United States received a big boost in the Babe Ruth era, when baseball fans wore the cap as a badge of identification with their favorite team. This simple and functional style was a perfect fit for a country that glorified democracy and anti-elitism. Baseball, the national pastime and passion for many people, also had the distinction of being the only American sport where a hat was an official part of the uniform. A cap can have the logo and color of a basketball, football, or hockey team, but only in baseball can you wear the exact replica of a hat worn by your heroes on the field. Truckers, farmers and laborers also incorporated the ball cap as de rigueur in their daily attire. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the baseball cap become a hot fashion item, propelled in large part because of its affiliation with hip hop music artists. Like Coca-Cola and McDonalds, the baseball cap became a symbol of America. baseball1 cap imageThose who feared American hegemony wouldn’t get near one, but those who wanted to identify with American popular culture wore a ball cap on his, or her head, and sneakers on their feet. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find any American without at least one ball cap in his or her closet or drawer. Imagine that! With the explosion of digitized embroidery, and advances in silk screening, the ball cap, with its message on the crown, has became a walking billboard. With a message on the top of one’s head, the wearer can let the world know just what brands they prefer, their political point of view, their favorite activities, where they’ve traveled, their favorite band, movie, cartoon character, and their favorite team. Hence, a perfect headwear marriage, made in America.