Take a look at any street scene photo from before 1960. Men are lined up to hear an important speech, taking in a baseball game, walking down the busy boulevard, perhaps meeting outside to discuss important matters.
Big men, tall men, thin men, fat men, all different colors, all different ethnicities, all different socio-economic classes. But they all have one thing in common: They are all wearing a hat.
And then one day, like Keyser Soze, Poof. They’re gone. Centuries of fashion tradition vanished without comment or much public introspection. Where once “hatless” was used as a pejorative to describe someone who was hopeless and destitute, it suddenly became no big deal to not have a head covering.
What caused this mass decision by the world’s men? The answers are varied, and without polling everyone alive at the time, it’s impossible to precisely say what led to the mass decision to abandon the hat en masse.
In 1931, according to statistics compiled by the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, there were 1,710 US hat factories employing close to 50,000 workers. By 1954, there were only five wool felt hat makers left in the US.
Sure, there were still hats on the market, even as it was shrinking, just as there is a hat market that still exists today. But by and large, the hats of today are not the classic Fedoras, Panamas. Porkpies or other styles that once were an indispensible part of the male wardrobe. Instead, they are baseball caps, golf caps, cowboy hats and other head adornments. But it’s just not the same.
The most recent statistics available on the US hat industry embrace baseball caps and other sporting goods, which research firm IBISWorld claims in a report on Hat retailers is a $2 billion industry. But annual growth is below 1%, the report says, a statistic that may indicate even the sporting type of headgear is in a slow, steady decline.
One thing’s for sure – get a group of men together on the street and you are more likely to see a Reptilian in the crowd than you are to spot a Homburg adorning someone’s head.
So, a few theories. The most accepted blame for the demise of the classic men’s hat rests with President John F. Kennedy. In the book “Hatless Jack,” a 2004 examination of why men no longer wear hats, the hat industry puts the blame squarely on JFK.
The book’s opening paragraphs take us inside a hat industry meeting where one mogul holds up a picture of Kennedy, lamenting his hatless condition as a major problem.
Then the same mogul holds up a picture of Nikita Khrushchev, the Russian leader, wearing a hat. “This,” he said, “is even worse.”
Despite the hat industry sending Kennedy many different free hats to wear, the Camelot-era leader never did cover his head with one. And that began a slow descent to today’s market, where the only men wearing a classic hat are actors in period pieces and the horn section of the Asbury Jukes.
Some other theories on the state of hatlessness:
1) Longer hair styles made wearing hats less flattering to the face and created messy hair. Although this theory tends to discount the early history of the US, it does match up well with the hat’s demise in the 1960s, marked by the arrival of the mop-topped Beatles and the rise of the hippie era.
2) Automobiles grew less spacious. Wearing a hat in most cars used to be no problem, as the high ceilings gave plenty of room between your head and the car’s top. The post-war trend away from boxy automobiles to sleek Italian sports car designs, the VW Beetle and other small vehicles killed it.
3) The rise of inexpensive sunglasses and the move away from the agrarian lifestyle. Where once hats served a practical purpose, shielding the wearer from the sun and cold, a more urban lifestyle and the rising popularity of cheap sunglasses made it unnecessary to wear a hat.
4) The birth of youth culture. Starting in the mid-to-late 1950s, the first stirrings of rock ‘n roll generally marked a rejection of all things parental. Hats were seen as part of the old man’s culture.
Whatever the cause of the “off with their hats” movement, it appears the classic hat’s heyday has passed and is unlikely to return. And that’s something we can all take our hats off and mourn.