Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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May I Take Your Hat?

Res Publica

August 2013

by Lindsey Grudnicki

Habits and customs are easily discardable these days. Whereas a hundred years ago, rebelliousness against cultural norms would have been frowned upon, we tend to encourage the throwing-off of “out-dated” practices as a sign of progress, innovation, and individual expression. But perhaps we’ve been too quick on the draw on some of these liberating, racing leaps “ahead” into new technology, fashions, codes of behavior, and practices. In shedding our past like a snake sheds its skin, we believe that such a past is worn-out, unfit for modernity. Yet we have sometimes been mistaken, getting rid of living skin; we have ridded ourselves of customs that are actually good for us, good for our character and spirit. One such custom, in my humble opinion, is the wearing of hats. Not baseball caps or the wool hats we don in wintertime, but tailored hats that add lustre and polish to our appearance and make a statement about the person beneath the brim.

Why a hat? In the words of Alice LeGrow, “You can put it on and say, ‘Hey you, person without a hat! I’ve got something you don’t! How did I get it? Probably by being worth more to society.’” While you may not be “worth more to society,” as LeGrow humorously suggests, wearing a hat does give you some points, and reveals what you aspire to as well as the code that you live by. A hat can speak volumes about you – how well you can put yourself together, how good your tastes are, and how you wish to be perceived by the world. In the past, a hat was as much as part of your outfit as a coat; without one, you were, in some sense, unprepared to venture out. In the age of “casual,” when it is deemed acceptable for students to wear sweats to class, for professional women to go to work with bare legs, for men to wear jeans into the office instead of slacks, we have lost the ability to dress ourselves to the positions we hold or desire to hold. We have forgotten what it means to have style; good clothing doesn’t necessarily mean expensive items, but rather finding items that are tailored to your shape, age, and station. Naturalness and comfort can be found in tailored items, though my generation seems to harbor this misconception that formality and fit prohibit it.

Hats also have the amazing ability to influence human interaction; no other article of clothing has this feature. Wearing a hat allows for a person to exhibit their social grace, or lack thereof, to display delicacy and politeness without words or even an obvious external act. The “rules” connected with this accessory relate to our character, indicating whether we are aware of our surroundings, our responsibilities, and the effects of our gestures. Perhaps it is the very existence of these rules that has kept the hat from coming back. We are a democratic people, after all, and possess the virtues and vices of such; our vices include a resistance to forms that can lead us, unwisely, to condemn certain “aristocratic” standards. There is another side to this coin, however: in modern times, when gentlemen are no longer expected to open doors for ladies, there are fewer opportunities to show the decency and poise that we are capable of as thinking, feeling, social beings. Wearing a hat says much, but so does taking off your hat. Taking your hat off when addressing women, removing your hat when entering a home or worshipping God, tipping your hat to another person: all are conscious acts of respect, and recognition of how to behave with elegance. We as a culture have let our definition of “rudeness” become extremely lenient and our rejection of “formality” become exaggerated beyond what is truly good for us. Reviving hats, and the rules connected with them, would allow us to begin correcting this failure on our part to uphold a sense of dignity in our interactions with others.

The rules, not the hats themselves, may be the feature preventing the resurgence of headwear in America. Yet we must remember that rules can be played with, and that it is infinitely better to make little changes to the rules than to discard them – and hats – completely. In a culture plagued by mass-produced goods, our re-acquaintance with tailored hats could open new avenues for selfexpression; haberdashery, a struggling art form due to our neglect of headwear, would benefit, but hat-wearers themselves would find that they possess a unique tool for expressing their personality as they choose the style of their hat and the habits that they adopt in association with it. While our jeans, tops, and shoes may all be fundamentally similar these days, a hat – the cut, the fit, the type, the acceptance of certain rules – would serve as the most visible symbol of our individual tastes, occupation, hopes, and manners. Think of some of the notable hatwearers of the past: Churchill in his bowler hat, a simple, clean, traditional, practical, English piece; Lincoln in his black top-hat, at once melancholy and comedic; Audrey Hepburn in her playful sunhat or a head-wrap by Givenchy. Each style confers specific characteristics upon its wearer, and the wearer has the amazing power to influence which of those are highlighted and to what degree. Fedoras, for example, were widely popular in the 1940s and 1950s, yet could be worn to vastly different effects. Humphrey Bogart in a fedora fostered elements of mystery – his hat was part of his “detective” persona, aiding him in slipping into the shadows by shading his eyes and face as the rest of his form became concealed by smoke-filled darkness. Cary Grant, on the other hand, used a fedora to a completely different end in his comedic films; a size too big or worn tilted on his head or donned after being accidently crushed, his hat added to his clownishness and good humor. While the suits may have been standardized, hats could be used to articulate distinct traits about a person and develop their whole character.

There is a great value in wearing a hat that we have failed to recognize; it is an error that we should make an effort to amend. The classic fashion icons of the first half of the 20th century proved that hats could transform a person’s whole demeanor, as well as their outfit. The benefits outweigh the price of overcoming our dislike of formality, especially when that formality can be altered for our times and tastes. Our interpersonal relations have suffered in the digital age, and the wearing of hats could serve as a step in amending the disconnection between strangers passing in the street as well as friends meeting together. We will have made an improvement, individually and culturally, when we once again say to guests, “May I take your hat?” as they enter our homes.

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