It is widely believed that American men stopped wearing formal hats—fedoras and bowlers, homburgs and boaters—when President Kennedy showed up at his inauguration without a top hat. That is not wholly accurate. Hat sales to men did collapse during Kennedy’s administration, and Kennedy did not like wearing hats, but there are photographs of Kennedy in a top hat on his way to the Capitol. Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, was the first hatless president, though being a Texan, he did wear Stetsons, but not at his inauguration. All of this might be a kind of historic echo—a president’s fashion dictates the dress of the nation. The rise of the panama hat (a soft straw fedora made in Ecuador, where in 1944 the hats were that nation’s primary export) was attributed to another president, Theodore Roosevelt, when he sported one while operating the controls of a steam shovel at the eponymous canal.
The Straw Hat Riot
The Straw Hat Riot took place in in New York City, beginning on September 13th, 1922, two days before the unofficial date when men were to switch from their summer straw hats to their winter felts and silks. The riot lasted a week. It involved thousands. There were many injuries and arrests. Countless crushed straw hats. It had been brewing for years. The city’s haberdashers hired boys to knock the straw hats off any delinquent wearer of same after the 15th, the conventional, silently agreed upon day of conversion, in order to assure new purchases, spur the economy. There is a Straw Hat Day in the spring as well, though no one now remembers it. These public anniversaries are fading in the collective memory—no white after Labor Day kind of rule—as are all the occasions of occasional “dress.” Uniforms. Work, school, church clothes. Formal, casual, sport attire. Even the keeping of a complete wardrobe seems beside the point. We now have nice clothes, clothes always being described as “comfortable.” It is hard to imagine riots over a hat, that hats would be, well, political, but in the 1920s, mobs were snatching and smashing straw hats all over Manhattan.
How You Gonna Keep Them Down on the Farm
This semester, I taught once more a class called Contemporary Rural and Agricultural Literature. I started teaching the course in the 1980s, when I worked in Iowa and the farming debt crisis was in full swing. I grew up in a city—Fort Wayne, Indiana—and knew little about the farms that were all around me. I knew even less about the conditions of the crisis in which farms now seemed to be entering. When I taught the class in Iowa, my students were from farms and rural towns. Later, when I held classes on the same subject at Harvard, Syracuse, and Alabama, outside of Iowa, nearly everyone was two or three or more generations from a farm. I ask these students to draw a picture of a farm and a farmer on the first day. The results are pretty uniform. The farm consists of a big haymow barn with silo, lots of animals, a windmill, a two-story house with a porch (Gothic windows!) and picket fence to keep the chickens scratching in the yard penned up. The farmer is always the same—a man in denim bib overalls, a hayfork or hoe in hand, a full frayed-brim straw hat, and always something, a straw of some kind, in his mouth. The class over the term addresses two matters. First, that farms and farmers don’t look this way anymore. And second, why is it that we think they still do? (Or, more precisely, why is it we want them to look like those depicted in the drawings?) Right now, I just want to think about that hat, that wide-brimmed, worn-out, straw sun hat. It is true that if you look at pictures from the Great Depression praising famous men, Farm Security Administration documentary photos, you’ll see that hat and all kinds of full-brimmed fedoras as standard headgear for field work. But when I started teaching the class in the 80s, that hat had been replaced by the polyester-fabric-plastic-mesh-and-solid-six-paneled-one-size-fits-all-foam-billed-plastic-adjustable-back-tabbed baseball cap. It was known as a “gimme.” I tried, back then, to track down its origin. Most Iowans I talked to believed it was created first by Pioneer Hi-Bred, a seed company founded in 1926 in Des Moines by FDR’s vice president, Henry Wallace. It came in the company’s trademarked green color, sporting an embroidered patch of the company’s logo, a lazy infinity, sprouting a corn sprout at its pinched waist. The hat was cheap to make and indestructible and, back then, retained a sense of the modern optimistic future as an agriculture began to think of itself as an agribusiness. The hat was a kind of early bling as well. You got to sport the colors of a first-class, scientific, international operation, a professional kind of uniform to replace the raggedy dungarees. There were other branded freebies—coats and gloves. It was the marriage of social realist workers propaganda to capitalist irreal advertising. That marriage set up a contest between the two teams, competing lifestyle lives. It had only been twenty years before the donning of the seed cap that Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had famously visited the Garst farm. That seed cap seeded the whole—the co-op cap, the implement cap, stockyard, dairy, fertilizer cap followed. This representing represented a profound shift. The clothes clothed the new, complex relationship between the freeholding landholders and their ever expanding corporate and capital concentrating “partners” as being on one big team. But it was also a disguise. That bling-y brand’s wearing quickly transformed its meaning, warping into another kind of “branding.” The cap style, though, had legs and migrated via truckers into town, into the suburb and the city. The cap knocked off the campaign hats and peaked caps of cops, the barracks and garrison hats of soldiers and fry cooks, the pith helmet of postmen, the kepis of conductors, the tweedy soft caps of duffers, the sweat-stained trilbies of football coaches. All hats. This hat became the hat. It came to be seen as the great working-class chapeau. Men might not wear hats like they used to, but they would wear, do wear, this hat. It was great for hiding baldness or a bad hair day. The rebel could wear its bill to the back or to the side. Soon it wore its brand but also the logo of its maker. The price tag left on as the “gimme” evolved to an expression of wished-for status, conspicuous consumption. It is so ubiquitous now as to be almost invisible. Or subliminal, as it always carries its billboard above its bill.
The Context of No Context
In his book Within the Context of No Context, George W. S. Trow wrote, in 1980, about his father’s hat. His father wore a fedora without a second thought. Trow himself wore one trimmed with scare quotation marks, as it were. “Irony has seeped into the felt of any fedora hat I have ever owned—not out of any wish of mine,” he writes, “but out of necessity. A fedora hat worn by me without the necessary protective irony would eat through my head and kill me.” A hat is not only a hat. Its loss stood for the loss of the seriousness of purpose. The hat made sense in a context. Its loss is also a symbol of the demise of a controlling elite, a kind of fallen felt crown. Trow’s book is about more than hats. It is a lot about television, hatless television. Trow suggests that the world changed with the game show Family Feud, the first game show where the right answer was not the right answer but the answer that most people (polled studio audience members) believed was the right answer. This shift he sees also in the contrast between the covers of the now defunct Life magazine and its Time Life spinoff People. If you were on the cover of Life, Trow believed, it made you famous. If you were on People’s, cover you were already famous. Donald J. Trump, a creature of the frameless contexts of television and gossip, has brought back the hat. But not the felt fedora. He favors the branded baseball cap. That screen-printed Make America Great Again, I see now that he is elected, has given way to an embroidered U S A. I guess America is back, now that it is on the front of the cap. Trow’s fedora, Trow seems to have said, was a metaphor, an objective correlative. It stood for something. This new hat comes with its “meaning” printed on the escarpment of its crest, its own gloss. Its own Cliffs Notes.
Color Me Red
I was stymied in my attempt to find the official color of the Make America Great Again baseball cap. I think of it as red, but what red? There must be an agreed upon Pantone numbered color. I recently discovered that the official crimson for the University of Alabama and Indiana University is the same: Crimson PMS 201. As hard as I looked, I could not find an exact numbered shade, though, on ordering forms for Trump’s hat. The customer was given a range of colors, a spectrum of Pantone hues to customize the hat. I think of the hat as red, but I also found an article speculating on the correlation between the mood of the candidate and the color of the hat he was wearing. White, the informant believes, indicates a buoyant mood while red signals that we should take warning. I learned that the hat comes in black, too. No speculation on what wearing that color could mean. You can order the cap with special embroidery—a general’s golden scrambled-egg garland on the bill. My search did discover that many sources attempted to assign a Pantone color to Mr. Trump’s skin. The consensus seems to be a Pantone color called Gold Flame 16-1449 TPX. I guess “Red” it is, the cap’s color. I am colorblind, so I don’t really see it, the red of the red. I have to take Mr. Trump’s word for it.
I like hats. I wear hats. All kinds of hats. I noticed early on in the 2016 presidential election campaign that the candidates were, as usual, hatless, but in the absence of hats there is always hair, or the lack of it, to consider and comment upon. I remember reports of past political seasons posting pieces on haircuts and hair plugs, on the sides of severe parts and on liberal curls and conservative combovers, evil widow’s peaks and Hollywood dye jobs. So it was curious when the one current candidate garnering the most commentary for his hair (his coiffure a concoction of brutalist architecture and sketchy Escher-esque terracing) donned a hat. It made me think, that hat. The summer political conventions would soon be here, and I thought how those conventions, in my lifetime, had always featured a certain kind of hat, another kind of hat, the straw boater, not the baseball cap of the moment. True, as time went on, the boater’s function as just a hat changed more into costume signifier, straw into pressed Styrofoam, of the ritualized political convention and ossified barbershop quartets. Still, the boater persisted as political attire. Its flat surfaces provide in the television age, I suppose, stages for decoration and display of stuffed donkeys and plush elephants and bands of buttons and a stand for flags. But still, through it all, the boater retains enough of a signature to read as a political hat, the hat that hosts political conventions. Strange. The boater was simply popular as summer headgear from the late 1800s, when conventions as we know them began, and they continued to be so until the Great Depression, when the boater was eclipsed by the soft, straw panamas. The boater would have been de rigueur, then, worn to those un-air-conditioned conventions held in field houses, stadiums, armories, amphitheaters, and “gardens.” It is as close as we come to traditional costume, a civic uniform. I didn’t have a boater. I do now. I ordered one online from Gentleman’s Emporium. I got the cheaper one, a softer Laichow straw, two-inch brim with a dandy grosgrain satin ribbon of navy and red folded into a bow. They also called it a skimmer, the boater, this kind of hat. As the presidential campaigns moved around the country, I followed the progress of my boater as it shipped, drifting from warehouse to distribution center, all the logistics. It arrived. It arrived in a special box, the boater’s crown nestled and suspended to prevent crushing in the transit. The lozenge cloth label sewn into the band reads “Authentic SCALA Classico” wreathed with “Dorfman Pacific Company” and “Handmade Since 1921.” A less elegant label is tacked behind it, digitally produced ideograms for “do not wash,” “do not bleach,” “do not dry,” “do not iron.” Do not iron? And “100% Laichow/Laichow, XLarge/X-Grande.” The reverse has “Made in China/Hecho en China.” I like it. It is like a fossil. A ruin. It is a historic artifact. It doesn’t even seem to be a hat. It could be a planter, a wall decoration. It is out of time and space. And indeed, its provider, Gentleman’s Emporium, seems to do most of its business creating clothing and headgear for steampunk aficionados and anachronistic re-enactors. Now I know how to see it, this hat. I see now that I possess the crucial piece of my postmodern attire, my post-historical ensemble. The idea of progress is so last season. Going forward is not fashion forward after all. I always thought that a boater had transmuted into the sphere of costume—all tap dance-y and vaudevillian. But if the suit fits, wear it, yes? All the world’s a stage, and all that. Costume consumes us. “History,” said the boater bedecked (or was it a bowler?) Henry Ford, “is all bunk.” Or so we seem to remember. What he really said was, “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.” That sounds . . . familiar. Okay. Today, we have the detritus of costume and customs, scraps of quotations all Scotch taped together, straw men and paper dolls. Every day we put on some sort of suit, pieces pieced together. I lift the boater out of its box and flip it by the brim, up over my head, and lower it down on my crown. It fits. But what does that mean, it fits? And does it? And if the hat does fit, how, how will I wear it?
MICHAEL MARTONEis author of the forthcoming book Brooding: Arias, Choruses, Lullabies, Follies, Dirges, and a Duet. He lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, next to the abandoned country club where Walker Percy wrote Love in the Ruins.