The Magazine

Cool Chapeau, Man

Joseph Epstein, glad hatter.

Sep 8, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 48 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Earlier this summer, I was discovered to have a basal carcinoma, which sounds terrifying, but is in fact merely a precancerous sore that was easily cut away by a dermatologist. The sore was at my hairline--wasn't it William James who said of Josiah Royce that he showed "an indecent exposure of forehead?"--and was the result of too much sun. I was told to begin using sunscreen and, on sunny days, to wear a hat.

The hat I bought, at a shop too quaintly called The Things We Love, is a straw fedora, with a slender black ribbon running round its base. The brim is of normal size, and it is a fairly serious piece of goods: no Aussie Outback hat or Indiana Jones replica. An adult hat, I call it, and I wear it at an only slightly rakish angle. (Euclid, unfortunately, does not take up rakish angles, a small flaw in one of the great books in Western civilization.)

The press this hat has been bringing me all summer is noteworthy. "Nice hat," more than one passing stranger has said to me. "Cool chapeau, man," I've also heard. "Very dapper" is the most frequent comment. So far no one has called me "natty." Dapper I can live with, but natty suggests two-colored shoes and monogrammed shirts. You don't ever want to be natty--at least I don't.

The reason my hat seems to be garnering so much attention is that it is unusual today to see a man wearing a--how shall I put it?--grown-up hat in a serious way. I suspect that most people who see me approaching from the middle distance ask themselves, "Is this guy in the hat kidding or what?" As a surety of my earnestness, I do my best not to smile as I pass. When I pass people I know, I am not above tipping my hat, or before women taking it off in a sweeping gesture as if it had a plume.

John F. Kennedy is often cited as the man who killed men's hats in America, and perhaps around the world. With his thick head of hair, low-hairline division, a hat probably would not have sat well on Kennedy. One thinks of FDR as, characteristically, wearing a hat and brandishing a cigarette holder; Harry Truman--a haberdasher, after all--also comes most readily to mind behatted. But today there is no politician that one automatically thinks of in a hat.

John McCain is often shown on television walking around Iraq in a baseball hat. A mistake, this, I feel. For the candidate who is supposed to represent gravity and the wisdom of experience, a baseball cap, even one with Navy written across it, is all wrong. McCain doesn't look good in the damn thing. Barack Obama, the youth candidate, I can easily envision wearing a baseball cap backwards. The picture makes me, in one swoop, lose hope and want to fight hard against change.

The baseball cap marks a steep decline in elegant male attire. Not even baseball players look good in them--just as no Greek fisherman has ever looked good in a Greek fisherman's cap. In his baseball cap, the pitcher Randy Johnson, the Big Unit, looks like a 6′10″ geek. With his cap off, he's more than passable. Yet the baseball cap is endemic in our day, worn forward, backward, or off the side, rapper style. Anywhere you wear them, though, they don't come off.

Men of my father's generation wouldn't leave the house without their hats. In the movies, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, James Cagney punched thugs out without removing their hats. A noir flick is unthinkable without fedoras. Hat shops were a fairly common feature in the cityscape. Many dry cleaners and shoe-shine parlors also blocked hats; blocking was a mysterious steaming process that gave new life to a man's hat.

In my thus far brief return to wearing a serious hat, I discover that doing so entails certain inconveniences. The infrastructure, as we should say today, for serious hats is no longer in place. I shall not, for example, be able to travel on an airplane with a hat, unless I sit with it in my lap through the flight, for surely there will be no room for it in the invariably crowded overhead luggage compartments. Hats also present a problem in restaurants, for the vast majority of even good restaurants no longer have a hat-check facility. Hat racks, too, are less and less common.

I intend nonetheless to persist. I have long owned a green felt fedora that I intend to bring out and wear in the autumn. I may well become known, at least in my neighborhood, as the guy in those strange old-fashioned hats. I shall instead think of myself as among the last men attempting to pass themselves off as grown-ups in America.

JOSEPH EPSTEIN