Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

The Chap in the Hat

Hats_Now

Hat-clad men are now ubiquitous and their choice of headwear is commensurately conspicuous, as if there were a sartorial safety in numbers. At this year’s fashion shows in London, Milan and New York, flat caps, fedoras, baseball caps, bowlers, homburgs, stove pipes, Stetsons and variants of the sombrero, have been modelled on and off the catwalk in a variety of materials and colours. Even Pope Benedict XVI’s ‘flamboyant headwear’ has come under scrutiny in the press.[i] The trend for male headwear is clearly influenced by past styles, but it intrigues because unlike other sartorial revivals of recent years – the pocket square, the tie bar, the boutonnière and the lapel pin – the hat has no direct association with the suit, a staple of male dress for the past two hundred years.[ii]

Hats_Past

Hats for Cash-strapped Consumers…

According to London-based milliner Lara Jenson, ‘the recession is a perfect environment for hat design to flourish. Hats and headpieces have long been worn to signify wealth and status and in an economic downturn they have been fashionably worn to this effect.’[iii] Jenson’s observation may go someway to explain the popularity of headwear this year, but it doesn’t satisfactorily account for the fact that men’s millinery mania is curiously specific. Whilst modest hats – bowlers and flatcaps – are popular, there is an evident preference for rakish variants, not least the fedora and Stetson.

milan6What might this suggest? Well, possibly, that men are (sub)consciously using their headwear to communicate something about themselves. In an interview with the Financial Times, designer Flora McLean comments, ‘I was told the other day that people wear hats to explain what they can’t say with their faces.’[iv] As to what men’s headwear can say that their faces cannot (or will not), the preference for the fedora and Stetson is telling. For these hats are frequently the headwear choice of ‘real men’, cads and heroes from history and fiction, men like Indiana Jones, Humphrey Bogart, Al Capone and J.R. Ewing. Could it be that the hat is being worn to signal man’s strength… and relevance?

… Or a Cure For Gender Headaches?

The argument that men are not well suited to postindustrial society has been forcefully, and convincingly, argued by Hanna Rosin.[v] Rosin asserts that:

The postindustrial economy is indifferent to men’s size and strength. The attributes that are most valuable today—social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus—are, at a minimum, not predominantly male. In fact, the opposite may be true. Women in poor parts of India are learning English faster than men to meet the demands of new global call centers. Women own more than 40 percent of private businesses in China, where a red Ferrari is the new status symbol for female entrepreneurs. Last year [2009], Iceland elected Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, the world’s first openly lesbian head of state, who campaigned explicitly against the male elite she claimed had destroyed the nation’s banking system, and who vowed to end the “age of testosterone” … Men dominate just two of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most over the next decade: janitor and computer engineer. Women have everything else—nursing, home health assistance, child care, food preparation[vi]

Rosin’s ideas have been taken further by Guardian columnist Victoria Bekiempis, who suggests that men’s ‘spooked machismo’ explains the heightened relevance of ‘cowboy’ politicians, such as Ronald Reagan and George W Bush (both of whom wore Stetsons), in America. The ideas and actions of men of this ilk, which enshrine and endorse ‘phallocentric leadership’, reflect deep uncertainties about the role of the male in modern society.[vii] But America’s (male) politicians are not alone in appearing powerless before recent world events. Within Europe, whilst Berlusconi performed and Sarkozy prevaricated, it was Germany’s Angela Merkel who seemed to be plotting the course for future financial security.

And it is not just in politics that men’s societal role is being challenged. Daniel Craig’s flaunting of flesh in Skyfall provoked harsh criticism from Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who expressed ‘pain’ about the amount of time Craig evidently spent in the gym preparing for James Bond’s latest outing. [viii] Cohen implies that Craig’s physical regime and supplements are unmanly, even womanly. They are substitutes for ‘cleverness and experience’, which was a hallmark of male film stars in the days of Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart. Cohen is challenged by OUT Magazine’s Mark O’Connell (among others), who suggests that he is subconsciously expressing a fear of treating women, or men who seem to behave like women (i.e. gay men), on equal terms.[ix]

If The Hat Fits

The reason why gender insecurities might encourage the wearing of hats is historical, for clothing of the head has always demarcated the sexes. Whilst women’s heads were almost entirely enveloped by fabric from the earliest of times, men’s heads were either bare or covered with a high hat.[x] The top hat, popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, represents the zenith of high headwear. Borrowing from Freud, some commentators have suggested that this style of hat was a phallic signifier, a symbol of male potency and dominance.[xi] As if to demonstrate the point, in 1920, the German artist Max Ernst created The Hat Makes the Man, a picture depicting four phallic towers made up of hat photographs cut from sales catalogues.[xii]

CRI_97242

Whilst it is not the case that every hat-wearing male has gender hang-ups, the current preference for fedoras and Stetsons – even the wearing of a yellow bowler hat or a red stove pipe hat, which is pretty provocative – does possibly show how underlying and widespread societal concerns shape our outlook and dress, even if we are not fully cognisant or in agreement with them.

Head On, an exhibition about headwear and contemporary clothing runs at the London College of Fashion until 23 March 2013. www.fashionspacegallery.com


[i] H. Rochell, ‘Let the Devil wear Prada – the man in the Vatican was dressed by Christ’, The Times (Tuesday, 12 February 2013), 6-7.

[ii] A. Hollander, Sex and Suits: the evolution of modern dress (New York, 1994).

[iii] L. Foreman, ‘Head Lines’, Financial Times: Life & Arts (Saturday/Sunday, 16/17 February 2013), 4.

[iv] Ibid., 4.

[v] H. Rosin, ‘The End of Men’, Atlantic Magazine (July/August, 2010). http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/07/the-end-of-men/308135/. Accessed: 16-ij-2013.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] V. Bekiempis, ‘The cowboy in crisis, or male anxiety in American politics’, The Guardian (Tuesday, 25 October 2011). www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/oct/25/cowboy-crisis-male-anxiety. Accessed: 16-ij-2013.

[ix] M. O’Connell, ‘Pecs and Ass: the age of Daniel Craig’, OUT Magazine (4 December, 2012). http://www.out.com/entertainment/popnography/2012/12/04/pecs-and-ass-age-daniel-craig. Accessed: 16-ij-2013.

[x] C. Breward, The Culture of Fashion: a new history of fashionable dress (Manchester, 1995), 13, 15.

[xi] Hollander, Sex and Suits, 128.

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