Let me ask you a purely academic question: Hello?
— Dean Blehert

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Hat's Off!

When I was little, and my Dad went to "the office", his presence in the house was strongest in the front closet, where, on the top shelf, like a row of conservative silent fathers, were hats, part of the uniform, like suits and ties, part, really, of the shape of a man's head in the 1930s and 40s, narrow-brimmed, felt, front-to-back dented. Fedoras, I guess, though I heard them called only "hats" -- where did they go?

They vanished before anyone heard of global warming. Why? They were hardly unmanly. Even now they don't look quaint on Bogart or McMurray or Mitchum. I read recently that the first dictator of Paraguay ordered every man to wear a hat (this in the tropics) so that respect could be shown to ladies by doffing them.

(What a good word, "doff" -- from "do off". Why didn't it become mob slang: "Vinnie, that asshole needs to be doffed." We'd have the Mafia Don and the Mafia Doff.)

So maybe rudeness or Women's Lib unhatted us.

But, by the way, how do we account for the passing of women's hats? They were never doffers, but always hatted, not just at banquets, but whenever they left the neighborhood (e.g., to "go downtown" to shop or see a doctor) and sometimes close to home, big-brimmed bonnets and tiny pill-boxes with bits of veil in front, all shapes and shades. These, too, are gone or worn to stand out, unusual.

But hats don't characterize Mom as they do Dad. Women were most often in and around the house, bare-headed. But men -- any day downtown, lunch hour, groups of suited men passing, heads brim-crossed and muffin-creased, silk bands out, leather sweat-bands in, hair or skin(fashion was kinder to bald men then) nestled in soft silky white inner lining, just enough brim to shade the eyes -- trimmed cowboy hats for crowded city life. If they'd lasted a few years longer, I'd have gotten my first one around age 17 (1959).

Were they expensive? Did blue-collar men own at least one, for going to church? I'm so ignorant. When I was a kid, a man was someone who went to an office. But I think they all -- even the tramps -- wore fedoras, though some were hand-me-down, frayed.

When hats vanished, how many hat makers went unemployed? (Were they all twitching-mad from mercury in chemicals used to shape hats -- mad as hatters?) And how masculine those hats were! What more seductively perverse than Marlene Dietrich in a man's hat? Did poets then wonder what had become of top hats? Derbies? (Imagine Abe Lincoln in a Fedora, Bogart in a Derby.)

OK, so times and styles change -- women's far faster than men, because, in a "man's world", fashion was one of the few things women were allowed to change (without consulting men) in their self-definitions. But this was so quick: It happened in my time, my Dad's time, I don't know when or how or why. There went Dad and his cohorts to work in suits, ties, overcoats and fedoras; then the same men went to work in suits, ties, overcoats and no hats. How do such things happen. Was it Eisenhower? I see Truman fedora'd, but not Ike. He was military. Fedoras were civilian.

Probably it was the return of all those soldiers (about 16,000,000 of them returning after WWII), not in a rush to replace one helmet with another, really in no mood for uniforms of any sort. My Dad wasn't accepted into the Army: Flat feet. Being a civilian in a fedora was not something he was proud of. In 1945 arrived a flood of demobbed, hatless heroes from the world's most informal army, known for slang, chewing gum and breezy postures. (Hitler hadn't expected much from such easy-going troops, officers who responded to formal invitations to surrender with "Nuts!")

It must have become young and heroic to be hatless. (But why didn't they do away with ties as well? What a sadly missed opportunity!) That's it. I'm satisfied. I'm sure that's the answer, so don't tell me about the felt mines drying up in 1946 -- I don't want to hear it.

1 comment:

Pam said...

Yes, hats! And for women (and for young girls going to church or getting ready for the Easter parade) how important they were. One didn't realize that the wonderful wide-brimmed white hat that looked so sophisticated in the mirror at the hat store was going to become a sail on the way to church, requiring a continual struggle to keep it attached to head. And gloves! We had gloves, delicate woven white gloves that must be worn to church or downtown. (Remember when you went "downtown" to shop -- not to the mall?)And dresses! Oh, how we had dresses . . . and satin shoes for parties, dyed to match the dress.

I have to admit, slouching around in jeans and sneakers, that I only miss these things in theory. If I were given the chance to dress like the 50s I wouldn't take it.