Historians have struggled to find the best shorthand description of the modern era. Is it the post-industrial age, because most people work in offices rather than factories? Or the post-modern age of growing scepticism about enlightenment rationality? Some even call it the post-truth age. I prefer to think of it as the post-hat age.
Hats used to be ubiquitous. They were symbols of social roles: kings wore crowns, bishops mitres, clerks bowlers and labourers cloth caps. They were also fashion statements: milliners like Miller Christie were some of the most celebrated fashionistas of their times. Hats left their mark on the British landscape with thriving hatmaking towns such as Luton and Stockbridge, and on the language with phrases such as “old hat”, “hat trick” and “mad as a hatter” (the chemicals used to make hats drove many hatmakers insane).
Fashion became more flexible in the 20th century: plutocrats abandoned top hats in favour of more modest trilbies or Homburgs, and women’s bonnets shed some of their feathers, bows and gauze trims. But the association with respectability remained. “If you want to get ahead, get a hat” went a familiar slogan. Photographs of the Great Depression in the 1930s show destitute Americans, given jobs by FDR’s Public Works Administration, digging ditches wearing suits and fedoras. Even gangsters like Al Capone in the 1920s and 1930s and Jack “The Hat” McVitie in the 1950s wore neat-looking hats, as if to compensate for their nefarious activities.
The decline of hats began after the second world war, when many returning soldiers, tired of military discipline, decided to ditch their headgear. It speeded up dramatically with John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address in 1960 when he ditched his top hat, earning himself the nickname “hatless Jack” and plunging the hatmaking industry into a depression from which it has never recovered. The workers of the world had nothing to lose but their hats. The era of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll completed the demise. Hat-wearing survived mainly for specific purposes, such as protection from falling debris, or special occasions, like a day at the races. Some religious communities continue to insist that devotees cover their heads. But the link between workaday respectability and hat-wearing was broken.
Hats have now begun to make a creeping comeback. Lady Gaga adorns her head with elaborate sculptures. Bright young milliners compete to produce directional headwear for royalty and other celebrities. Some young people have even taken to dressing like Humphrey Bogart and Steve McQueen. But for most, these days, hat-wearing is a snub to authority rather than a sign of respect. The most popular hats are the ugliest: baseball hats that look like giant duck-bills, plastered with an inane slogan, and beanies that could double as tea cozies. It used to be rude to wear hats indoors; now they remain on whatever and wherever. In the tech world, billionaires often turn up to board meetings with beanies or baseball hats (they tend to ditch them when called before America’s Congress). Only once you’ve really made it can you let success go to your head.•