The Comeback of the Hat
| I was coming in the door as hats were going out. JFK, with his mop of just-so coifed hair, disdained wearing a hat. Ike looked silly in any hat but his military one. Adlai Stevenson seemed to like hats, but he was follicly challenged as we say today. LBJ loved his big Stetsons, but everyone knew LBJ was rude and uncouth and no one wanted to be like LBJ, the usurper.
The Russians still wore hats in those days, but everyone knew they were twenty years behind the times. J. Edgar wore a hat, as did Walter Winchell, but for them the hat was part of their shtick. They were born and would die with a hat on their head.
If I think about it, Harry Truman was the last person I remember who naturally wore a hat, but that is a hazy memory since the Truman I remember is the man from the photographs who had yet to become an icon. From somewhere out of a cloudbank, this picture of him sticks in my mind, taking his morning walk in Independence with a hat on his head.
By 1964 possessing a hat became almost an embarrassment. Barry Goldwater did not wear a hat. His gray mane and rugged good looks were part of his appeal. When Lyndon wanted to look presidential, he took off his rancher's hat and went bareheaded.
Years later, on a day when both his sons were visiting with their wives, my father made sure he told my brother that his old hat was still in the closet in the room we shared. I kept silent, knowing full well the hat was mine, purchased at the same time I bought my first 'suit' and topcoat from the little man with the cigar at Baum's in the 69th Street shopping center, or was it Adams Clothes. The little man was such a fixture of the scene that not to include him would be a sacrilege.
The cigar man would have known the difference between types of hats. I sure don't. What was a Fedora, a Homburg, a snap-brim or a pork pie? Could a snap-brim be a Fedora, or was it a form of Borsalino? Was there even such a style as a Borsalino or am I only remembering the name from some French film of the early 70's with Jean Paul Belmondo, or was it Yves Montand, playing a 30's gangster?
I know that a Homburg was a serious hat, the type worn to funerals or inaugurations, or by diplomats. As Neville Chamberlain stepped out of the little two-motor plane, didn't he have a Homburg in his hand, or on his head? I know he removed it to tell us that he had brought peace in our time back from his trip to Munich. Neville had a great head of hair, but the Homburg gave him the gravitas to make this announcement and have people believe him.
From what I can see, the Hat era is coming back. I don't mean that men are going to take up wearing hats with more than a brim in the front, or back, depending on how they wear their baseball cap, but rather men with hats have become the signpost for seriousness in advertising.
Back in the early 1990's Jerry Seinfeld starred in a commercial for American Express in which he was looked through the peephole in the door of his apartment. We saw his date on the other side of the door as he saw her, distorted, face rendered out of shape by the reflecting lens. The rest of the decade, whether in print or on TV, ads used the distortion technique to tell their story. They especially loved to do this with pre-teen children.
I began to dread turning on my TV to watch a football game for fear the cameras would zero in on ugly men pressing their faces into the camera. The subject did not even have to do anything to have their face distorted. Tricksters even distorted the face of our fearless leader. Perhaps distortion was the apt image of the time.
Then, last year, the man with the hat began to appear in a print advertisement for Salomon, Smith Barney. We never saw his face, but he was always standing alone, on a pier looking out to sea, or in front of his house, from which some construction outfit had cut off the left side. He was Gravitas, returning after his long voyage to the ends of the earth.
The ads were black and white, accenting his dark suit and the homburg on his head. He never turns around, but from the back I can see he is not Neville Chamberlain, but some other man who boarded a train some time between 1935 and 1960. The message is clear: if you don't take life seriously, this too shall disappear.
They were right; it did disappear. The bull market, the irrational exuberance, the distortion that nearly created the new Tulip Bulb boom. I wonder what he is thinking as I see him standing in front of his home. Is he going to go in and tell his family that Borsalino.com has crumbled and his investment is worth nothing? Like the good mourner, will he take off his Homburg before he tells them?