Once upon a time, men wore hats. Women, too. Basically, everyone did. To not wear a hat was to stand out as an uncivilized brute, akin to dropkicking your neighbor’s favorite puppy. And yet, over the course of the early- and mid-twentieth century, hats became optional.
Hatters blamed John F. Kennedy. As the legend goes, JFK failed to wear a hat at his presidential inauguration, an action which inadvertently crippled the nation’s long, beloved tradition of uniform headwear. The legend is bunk, actually - he did wear a hat, even though most historians pretended otherwise. But JFK just didn’t like hats – apparently, the playboy looked hideous in them - and his reluctance served as a cipher for the industry’s downfall.
The author takes this obscure historic nugget, and unlocks a forgotten history. Hats served important social functions for centuries – an indispensible means of signifying class both economic and personal, from tri-cornered hats of the Revolution to collapsible top hats at the opera. “Hatcheck girls” became debutantes and celebrities. In September 1922, the ‘Straw Hat Riots’ shook the streets of New York City, as hoodlums ripped hats off peoples’ heads and trampled them underneath their feet. Sinatra crooned about ‘the way you wear your hat.’ Hats became one of the little, everyday shorthands for the battles between conformity and independence, between tradition and modernity.
I’ve worn my Gatsby on a daily basis for years, and I’m partial to a good trilby. I’ve never looked good in a bowler or a homburg, and I don’t think I could pull off a pork pie to save my life. But now, thanks to this book, I can supplement my head-covering idiosyncrasies with some solid, fascinating history.
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