A hat-lover’s lament: how car culture, hairspray and JFK killed daily headwear

Picture the scene: you’re watching an old film, or reading a book set in the 1920s, or maybe you’re staring at a vintage photograph taken on a bustling city street. The image is in black and white or maybe a tea-stained sepia, but there’s a crowd and everyone in it looks somehow smarter, and better, than they do outside your window.
Crowds in the street today, they’re missing something. They’re missing their hats.

Headwear has been a universal human custom across cultures since time immemorial: a status symbol, uniform, religious emblem, form of self-expression, badge of belonging and, occasionally, seduction tool.

But for the most part, in western society, hats – other than the baseball cap of course – have been relegated to utilitarian use (protection from the sun and/or baldness), special occasions such as the races or a royal wedding revival or to a small group of more daring fashion risk takers.

Most of us aren’t even of the era in which hats had their heyday, but we lament the loss of style anyway. Everyone looked so fine in their headwear – the men more dapper, the women more alluring. When did people stop caring about looking smart?

For once, it’s not the youth of today to which fingers should be pointing. It’s the youth of the 1960s. The baby boomers have not only sequestered the affordable housing and tax breaks for themselves, but also our entitlement to sophisticated style. It’s all their fault.

But in many ways, they couldn’t help it. The 60s was the eye of a perfect storm of societal changes, which together marked the demise of everyday hat wearing. So what was blowing in this wind of hat devastation?
Humans are a naturally grimy species. We’ve all have bad hair days when grabbing a hat is the only option to cover our sins, but back in the day that was every day. The first shampoos came on to the market only in the 1920s, with a recommended use of once a fortnight, and although the modern shower was invented in the 1780s it was only in the late 50s and 60s that plumbing systems were sophisticated enough to cope with widespread domestic installation. So we were dirtier back then and hats were needed to hide the daily build up of “hat hair”.

It wasn’t just shampoo that killed off the hat, but a partnership with another consumer product sitting alongside it. Hairspray, the biggest-selling beauty product in 1964. Without hairspray there would be no beehive and why make a beehive if you’re going to hide it in a hat? As hairstyles escalated to new heights in the 60s, the hat diminished in popularity.

When we relied on a horse and carriage or a train to get from A to B, wearing a tall hat wasn’t a problem – in fact it was quite useful, keeping you dry or sun-protected on your amble. But as domestic car use spread in the 50s and 60s the need and practicality of wearing hats as you cruised the streets diminished.

Once the last bastion of everyday hat wearing, the “church hat” in the US kept milliners busy well into the 60s, but from then on hats became more of a rare species in congregations. The wartime years had been restrictive and the next generation wanted to be free of the conformity of their parents. Women had proven their capability in a man’s world during the war, and with emancipation in full swing the hat was often seen as a symbol of repression (interestingly, not for Kennedy’s wife Jackie O who was a notable hat wearer). Skirts got shorter, tops got lower, hair got higher and hats dropped to the bottom of the list of freedoms. Baby boomers were just doing what every generation of youth has done since: sticking it to their parents.

The celebrated Melbourne milliner Richard Nylon says that while the casualisation of the baby boomer years was “the greatest downfall of the hat”, these days people are just too afraid to be looked at.

“Hats will change the way you think about yourself. They will change the way other people see you. You need courage to wear a hat nowadays because hats are a commitment. People will look at you – they’ve got eyes – and when they look at you with a hat on they’ll think ‘How fabulous!’ ”

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