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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1 Comment

  1. Mens hat companies noticed a decline in hat sales among young men starting in the 1940s.
    They hired the best Madison Ave. ad agencies to reverse the trend. Ads showed women sexually attracted to Hat-wearing men. The hat types, like cars, began to get slick names like the Whippet, the Stratoliner, the Flagship and were advertised full-Page in color in big circulation magazines like Life, Look and Time.
    These named hats were called “Starter Hats” by the industry and were flashier and cheaper than hats meant for older men.
    But the Silent or Beat Generation that were kids during the war rebelled against their parents etiquette of dressing up in suits and ties when in public. The most rebellious were “greasers” who even wore dungarees (later called jeans), t-shirts and leather or cloth work jackets in public and even to school. Like bums! Hatless!
    But more than anything, men began growing their hair longer and combing it into elaborate hairdos held in place with greasy pomade or even Vaseline. The grease ruined hats and hats ruined the hairstyles. Hairdos replaced hats, but some teens still got crew cuts and wore suits and hats in that generation.
    The baby boomers made casual dress and long mop-top hairdos the teenage standard. As the 60s bloomed, the hair got longer and the casual clothing became a political statement against conformity to “the man” in business or government.
    In the 70s men began seeing hairdressers and getting perms and even more elaborate hairstyles, held in place with Mom’s hairspray. Even trying on a hat would ruin these dos, and young men feared “hat Head” more than the plague.
    Then around 1970, casualness conquered the old etiquette of dressing up in public, even among older people. Hat sales plummeted throughout the 60s despite the ad spending. The dress hat industry, which once sold millions of hats each year, went bankrupt. All the dress hat companies closed their factories and went out of business.
    Only sport hat and cowboy hat companies stayed in business.
    Hairdos and jeans had conquered dress hats and nearly killed hatting, a profession and industry that dated back at least to the Middle Ages.
    Indeed, some Hat Guild secrets were lost. Hat making became a small, specialty business. But never again could Hatters duplicate the amazingly thin but strong fur Felt made in those big hat factories prior to 1970.
    Any vintage fur Felt hat is superior to a new fur Felt hat. Vintage hats, particularly wide-brim fedoras from the 1900s to the 1950s, are now collectors items. Some larger-size hats in excellent condition, such as Stetson Whiippets which sold new for $10, now sell for more than $1000 on auction.

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