Who among us doesn't imagine ourselves on occasion to be things we truly know we are not, nor could ever actually be, no matter how hard we tried. The spirit of the 'Masquerade' lies dormant within each of us; sometimes it's as easy as simply changing one hat for another.
MAD AS A HATTER…
Very recently, a picture of rap ‘entertainer’ (I use that term VERY lightly) ‘L’il Wayne’ appeared in the Honolulu Advertiser (website), accompanying an article about his pending visit to tour the islands. He was wearing a red ball cap sideways and aside from the fact that ‘L’il Wayne’ has about as much eye appeal (to my mind) as a black Pee-wee Herman, the way he wore that red ball cap ‘gangsta style’ gave me considerable pause for reflection on the articles of apparel we place on our heads known as ‘hats’. L’il Wayne was of course trying to make a statement with his red cap, the same way he was defining himself by his baggy clothes, whole body tattoos, and superfluity of hip-hop ‘bling’ draped about his scrawny neck. Whatever the language that statement was in, however, I seem not to understand at all!
But enough about L’il Wayne; let’s focus instead on L'il Wayne's hat. Hat wear is quite an interesting subject to reflect upon, since although America has overall become increasingly hatless in the past 60 years, the ubiquitous ‘ball cap’ has become an American institution that everyone from bad-boy wannabees to middle-aged man (trying to hide a balding head) affects without a second thought. Here and there in America one occasionally still sees a more conventional hat (with a crown and brim), but more often the chapeau of favor among most (American) men seems to be a ball cap.
All American ball caps derived from the archetypal late 1890s soft visored baseball cap, that in its own turn descended from the British cricket cap. Originally made of wool fabric and unconstructed, ball caps are today made in a wide range of styles, some heavily constructed and stylized and some soft and ‘natural’, but all but a very few made from mostly synthetic materials. One of the most popular styles worn today has a built-in molded curve to the bill, a sop to the old baseball custom of hand-molding the bill of a ball cap. These are worn by NASCAR race drivers so commonly, I suspect they were born with one grafted to their skulls.
As an expression of my personal opinion, few things make a person look more like an uncultivated dork than a ball cap. Worn properly (bill forward), they convey the air of the hick country bumpkin more readily than that of the 'sport'. Worn backwards, they tell the world that the wearer has been sucked into the commercialised deception that he regards himself as somehow unique or 'cool'; the reality is that a dork is a dork, no matter how he wears his ball hat!
Seemingly, everyone accepts the typical ball cap you see everywhere today as a perfectly normal, unquestioned aspect of modern apparel. If one really stops to consider the ball cap, however, it quickly becomes apparent that in order to look good in a ball cap, one needs to have good facial bone structure. In actual fact, very few ‘average’ men have favorably shaped heads that lend themselves to looking good when adorned by a ball cap. This fact doesn’t seem to have much currency among the population, though; either that or most men simply don’t care how they look (as long as that bald spot is well hidden under a ball cap) or simply think they look cool in one.
Speaking as one of those poor souls who look absolutely terrible in a ball cap (or in any hat, for that matter) because of said uncomplimentary head shape, while I am not as grotesque as the storied ‘Elephant Man’, I definitely know well enough to maintain a hatless look if I don’t want to end up resembling Zippy the Pin-Head’s older and smarter brother. The only hat I’ve ever looked somewhat good in was a brimmed wool hat I sported while living my Steinbeck trip in Santa Cruz County, back in the late 80s (it’s the picture that heads up this article). But a ball cap? No way.
Despite my cranial grotesquery, for some perverse reason that I’ve never been able to explain reasonably, I have an affinity for hats. In fact I collect hats. Not ball caps, like some yahoos (with a collection of ball caps style hats numbering several thousands), but a collection of interesting hats of all kinds and all types. Perhaps my interest in hats stems from both the fact that while I look terrible wearing hats, I’ve had a lifelong association with head protection technology professionally, as in aerospace medical applications (flight helmets, sports helmets, basically any type of head protective device intended to protect the brain from injury by a blow to the cranium). In that connection, I once had a collection of aircrew protective helmets that numbered in the hundreds and I’ve written extensively in past decades on head protection in military and sports applications. More recently, I have gathered together a modest collection of military uniform hats from all the services and several different countries. Most are in my (large) head size of 60 cm, which is merely more irony, since I can’t wear any of them anywhere anyway. It’s difficult to explain how strange my study must look with all these things hanging from the walls, but I would bet it would be quite surprising to the average visitor to see all of them thus displayed. Among my more interesting visored military hats are an RAF Air Marshal’s peaked cap, a US Air Force Chief of Staff’s service cap, a Iranian Air Force officer’s cap (pre Islamic Revolution), a Serbian Air Force officer’s hat, a vintage United Airlines captain’s hat (rare and valuable because of its collectability), and a number of others of similarly modest rarity, but sublime interest.
So much for this particular symptom of my own acquisitive pathology. The hat, as far as anyone knows, originated back in the way-way ‘befoh time’ of prehistory, when some clever Neanderthal wrapped a leaf or an animal hide around his head to protect it from rain, cold, and sun effects. As the idea grew in favor, distinctive styles emerged over the centuries that served effectively as identification of one’s rank, status, social standing, and/or professional affiliations. Curiously, men were the only gender that wore hats for hundreds and hundreds of years. Women instead continued to wear their heads draped in fabric that served more as protection for the hair against weather and dirt. The fabric of a woman’s headdress was also an expression of modesty, since the style originated for most Westerners in the early days of Christianity and was carried on through the teachings of the Christian religion well through the middle ages.
Hats were worn mostly for two reasons by men after the 14th century: for protection against the elements and as a badge of rank or social status. Most hats of that time and afterwards were worn as badges of rank. They consisted of a basic crown that conformed to the skull, but had a brim that could be and usually was shaped and formed in a certain stylistic manner. If you stop to consider the hat of a British Admiral of the Napoleonic period, the typical three-corner hat of a Spanish buccaneer, the chapeau of a 16th Century French Musketeer, and a Mitre of a Roman Catholic Bishop of the late medieval era, all are basically the same in general construction, with merely the brim folded, gathered in, or fastened back in a certain agreed upon manner. Adornments like feathers, plumes, and other fixtures accentuated the different styles, as did the rich materials used and the decorative devices employed. The wealthier the wearer, the more expensive the materials and decorations, naturally enough.
Hats for women didn’t come into fashion until much, much later (about the early 1800s), but once women discovered the fashion advantages of apparel for adorning and individualising the female head, the custom of women wearing hats accelerated up into the stratosphere until well into the late 20th century, far outstripping men in their own varied headgear applications.
By the time the 20th Century had arrived, hats were well established as a means of communicating status and social standing, particularly among men. In England, for example, the Trilby (Bowler) became identified with the working guilds and tradesmen, while the tall beaver-skin ‘top hat’ was adopted by the bourgeois and upper classes as a symbol of elevated social, power, and economic wealth. The French beret was often worn as an affectation of extreme left-of-center sentiment and ‘bohemian’ (artistic) proclivity, while other styles (such as the rounded, billed hat originally affected by Russian or Slavic peasants) came to be associated with the common proletariat and lower classes.
In the military, men's hats originally shared a basic common ancestry, with rounded crowns and shaped brims, but as the centuries passed, they evolved many different and interesting forms having more to do with decoration and style than protection. Many materials were and could be used to make hats, including fur, pressed felt, animal skin, and others. Examples of these can be seen in the bear-fur ‘shako’ and the pressed leather spike helmets ('pickelhaube') favored by the Astro-Hungarian princes and Prussian Junkers, and in the highly stylized metallic helms descended from ancient Roman designs and more recent knights protective armored helmets.
Gradually, as the 20th Century unfolded, and as military weapons technology grew more formidable, the stylized military hats and helms of earlier periods gave way to armored helmets intended to protect the wearer against projectiles, shrapnel, bullets, and explosive devices. One of the most recognizable in the early 20th Century was the German ‘stahlhelm’ (steel helmet), that continued in German use for almost half a century (until superseded by Western ballistic helmet designs fabricated from Kevlar materials). As might be expected, advances in materials technology had to be kept abreast with developments in weapons technology, and this in turn had a profound effect on the development of headgear worn by soldiers. Today, most modern military helmets are of the ballistic type reather than of metal construction, and wil effectively stop most small-arms fire.
In the United States at the turn of the century, hat styles were greatly influenced by the American Civil War slouch hat, the ‘Wild West’ cowboy hat, the so-called ‘Jazz Era’ brimmed hat, and the immense popularity of the felt ‘Fedora’ of the 30s and 40s. Eventually, in the early 60s, hats suddenly fell out of favor among many men, a trend helped along considerably by the boyish, hatless look of the youthful new American President, John Kennedy. For the past 50 years Americans have since remained largely hatless, although once again here and there one sees hats enjoying a comeback.
For the most part, the overwhelming favorite among most men is the ubiquitous ball cap, already discussed at the beginning of this piece. Among younger people, the ball cap is often worn reversed (with the bill in back), a style that had its origins in the ‘bad boy’ gang subculture and that has been co-opted today by corporate efforts to sell the style to youths who think it’s ‘cool’. Among older men, the ball cap is commonly seized upon as a protective obfuscation against growing baldness and it is indeed amusing to see how many men who were formerly not fans of hats suddenly adopting a ball cap to hide that shiny patch on top of their heads. In fact, it’s almost a sure bet that a ball cap wearer over the age of 40 is not so much declaring his support for his favorite sports team as he is trying to hide evidence of his aging from the world’s unforgiving and mercilessly critical gaze (either that or he has an arrested juvenile mentality, never really grew up, and lives a sort of perpetually adolescent existence, d’ya think?).
The art of hat-making came to be known in time as a ‘millinary’ specialty, once women began wearing them, as milliners were trades-people who provided retail clothing and apparel accessories to the public. It was a natural extension of their retail trade to fashion hats as expressions of style for well-to-do women. Many upper class women sported male styles as an expression of their class privileges. Men’s hats, for their part, from about 1725 onwards came to be made increasingly of wool felt, the processing of which was usually accomplished through the use of mercury to form the material of the brim and crown. Since mercury is very poisonous if ingested or absorbed, this is one suggested origin for the popular idiomatic expression we know today as ‘mad as a hatter’. Hat makers frequently absorbed substantial amounts of mercury through the skin in their manufacture of men’s hats, so the allusion is a reasonable one. Mercury poisoning creates a number of deleterious health effects including serious mental deterioration.
One fact concerning hats that is not well known by most is that due to the influence of royalty in the middle ages and onwards, kings often limited wear of certain styles of clothing to certain classes; certain colors, fabrics, materials, and hat styles were prescribed for wear by royalty only. Common people were frequently forbidden to wear them and to do so was considered a violation of the royal laws and established social status decorum. Quite often poorer people had to be satisfied with basic cotton and wool fabrics, not only due to the common availability of these materials, but due to royal proscriptions against their use of finer apparel and styles.
Today, hats are often an active expression of political, social, or national sentiment. The green ‘Mao cap’ popularized by Mao Tsedung in the People’s Republic of China is one such clear example. The American cowboy hat is another, and so is the Australian ‘digger’ hat. Hats on American heads are so rare these days however (aside from the ever-present ball cap) that wearing one invariably turns heads and draws stares. In some areas of the mainland, for example, wearing a cowboy hat can provoke a discriminatory or adverse reaction, since all hats make a certain vestigial statement of sorts (e.g. wearing a cowboy hat on the streets of Manhatten).
As someone who has the wrong shaped head (mine is what we call a ‘melon’ shape that’s slightly oblong, as opposed to the more common ‘round’ head shape that usually predominates) to wear hats with aplomb and dignity, all I can do is admire those who do have a well-shaped head and who are able to carry off wearing a hat with the confidence and élan such an act warrants.
Perhaps it’s just as well, but I do have this ever-growing collection of hats that I can never wear and the thought of this fact, with all the irony such a circumstance carries with it, gives me occasional pause for thought. One of my more interesting hats is an Arabian ‘shemagh’, more commonly known as a burnoose or 'ghutrah' by those who have never traveled in the Middle East. This is the draped, patterned fabric triangle worn over a small skull-cap of an Arab person and secured with an ‘aghal’ (coiled or looped black cord). You’d be surprised at how much precision and care the proper wear and adjustment of such a piece of headgear requires. When I was in that region, back in the 80s and 90s, I wore one on rare occasions, just like ‘Al Aurance’ (we know him as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’), but in the West, it’s a rare day when one has an occasion to do so. Another favorite oddity in my collection is a German World War One steel helmet (often described as a ‘coal scuttle’, or a ‘Bosche helmet’). When I returned to Saudi Arabia on contract work back in the late 80s, I took this 1916 issued German helmet with me as personal protection against whatever adverse effects of the Gulf War might occur. Today, the thought of having used that 93 year old German helmet as protection against Saddam Hussein’s 1991 SCUD missile attacks fills me with a whimsical sense of amusement that brings a smile. Its makers would never have anticipated that it would leave the trenches on the Somme and eventually make it all the way to Saudi Arabia, some 75 years later, where it would be used to defend against having 3000 pounds of rocket debris fall on your head!
As I sit here, drawing this ramble to a close, my eyes stray across the hale to a wall where hangs a white topped British White Star Steamship Line visored cap similar to the one worn by Captain Smith, as his great unsinkable ship slowly settled down into the cold Atlantic waters, shortly after colliding with an iceberg. Perhaps I’ll put it on and sit here, imaging god-knows-what as I type these last sentences, and reflect a bit on what might have run through that worthy’s mind as his ponderous vessel sank lower into the freezing swells of the North Atlantic. Or perhaps I’ll simply quaff another glass of Italian Chianti and imagine that the sound of the waves pounding the beach outside are the lapping Arctic waters drawing closer to my wheelhouse on the Titantic's bridge.
Hats are an amazing accessory, really, and an interesting tool with which to exercise the imagination. Put on the right hat and it’s so much easier to be right there, in the zone, inside in (as Word Jazz great Ken Nordine would put it), inside the head of someone else who had, perhaps by virtue of wearing a distinctive hat (Napoleon?), a memorable affect noted by the rest of us more ordinary mortals. Oh, the humanity!
Aloha kakou. Malama pono!
Some interesting hat-related websites: