Think you know your hats?

Except in the world of high fashion, the hat is no longer in fashion. Yet, such is its significance that there’s no better acknowledgment of success than taking your hat off to someone

Words Aninda Sardar

Remember the last time you said “Hats off to you”? You probably do. Remember the last time you actually wore a hat? I’ll be surprised if you do. Hats haven’t been part of regular fashion trends for close to four decades now. Yet, taking the proverbial hat off to someone is the highest form of acknowledgement you can probably show for his or her success. How did humans come up with the idea of a hat? How many different types of hats are there in the world? What sort of cultural impacts did the hat have?


The first image of a man wearing a hat is on a wall in Egypt

The history of headgear of course goes way back through time. While our still-evolving ancestors may have used leaves to protect their heads from harsh sunlight or rain, the very first time we see evidence of a man in a hat is on the wall of a temple in Thebes, Egypt. It was a simple conical straw hat. From that to the baseball cap that is most popular today, it has been a long journey for the hat. While recounting all of it might be a bit too much for any head, here’s a look at some of the hat styles that have shaped the idea of fashion and style through the last couple of centuries.


The rise of the English flat cap was because of an enactment by the British Parliament

Back in 1571, the English Parliament enacted a law that all males had to wear a woollen cap every Sunday, failing which they would be penalised with a fine. The idea was to give a much needed fillip to Britain’s flagging wool industry. The industry of course recovered in due course of time but the ubiquitous flat cap became the hallmark of the British working class and remained so right through to the 20th century.


The Bowler was a functional hat that became a symbol of comedy

One of the most recognisable hats is the Bowler, a signature of the great Charles Chaplin. The rounded hat was created in 1849 by milliners Lock and Co, who had been making headgear for English royalty since 1676. They had hired Thomas and William Bowler to create a hat design for gamekeepers that would protect them from tree branches as they rode around. The result was the Bowler hat, which soon became a standard fashion item for Europe’s gents from the turn of the 20th century through to the mid 1920s. In Hergé’s Tintin series you see the bumbling detectives Thomson and Thompson in Bowler hats. Thanks to its association with the Thomson twins, Charlie Chaplin and the comedian duo Laurel & Hardy, the bowler’s link to the world of comedy is now inseparable.


The Top Hat was at the top of the chain at one point

The top hat, by comparison, has always been associated with the aristocracy and ceremony. These tall hats with narrow brims were used only as part of a very formal Western dress code, most often with tail coats. While the early top hats were really tall, with time, the height of the top hat’s crown reduced. However, even at their shortest a top hat was significantly taller than any other kind of hat around it. While the top hat has almost completely gone into disuse, you can still see it in the occasional period film or at special events like the Derby or the Ascot. Although it is unclear who invented the top hat, it is first seen in Carle Vernet’s painting of two decadent French dandies in 1796.

The French of course chose to be fashionably unisex with the Beret
Speaking of France, one of the most fashionable headgears you can possibly wear is the beret. Most of you would associate this French cap with militaries around the world. But before you dismiss it as something that only men in uniform would consider wearing, the cap’s origins are rather civilian. Besides, the French would never consider wearing anything that might even remotely be unfashionable. There are a few things that distinguish the beret, mass production of which started as early as the 17th century, from other hats. Chief among them are the facts that a beret is genuinely unisex and can be worn any how you like. The style we are most familiar with, with the flat crown propped to one side, was popularised by people in the Americas. As for you, team it up with a casual suit and a turtle neck jersey or a crew neck tee and you’d be the essence of style at the next gathering.


Meanwhile Yankee Doodle donned a Stetson

Across the Atlantic, the hat style that is inseparable with North America and the romance of the prairie roaming cowboys (portrayed so beautifully by people like Clint Eastwood, Kirk Douglas, John Wayne and Yul Brynner) is the Stetson or 10 Gallon Hat. The Stetson was first manufactured by the J B Stetson and Co. It had a tallish crown and featured a wide brim that offered plenty of shade to the wearer. Over and above that it was waterproof. Recipe for the Stetson to become a hot favourite. Also called the Cowboy Hat or Ten Gallon Hat, the Stetson is still worn by people from the southern states of the US.

When the boatmen of Venice inspired fashion – the Boater
Back on this side of the pond, there was the Boater that made waves in the world of fashion. The flat straw hat was a semi formal summer hat and remained fashionable mostly in the first quarter of the 20th century. Actors like Maurice Chevalier and Harold Lloyd however continued to wear Boaters well into the third quarter of the century. The ideal way to wear a Boater is with a blazer or a casual lounge suit. While Boaters are no longer worn, they have remained in use as part of uniforms of very traditional British schools like Harrow School and has been part of the uniform of the Princeton University band. 


From the Homburg to the Fedora

Another semi-formal that was very popular towards the end of the first quarter and through the second quarter of the 20th century was the Homburg hat. If you’ve watched Agatha Christie’s Poirot Investigates starring David Suchet, you will see the famous Belgian detective don this headgear in several episodes. Medium brimmed with a tallish crown, these hats were largely made of felt and worn with lounge suits as well as formal suits. 

Where the Homburg left off, the Fedora took over as seen in the Indiana Jones series. The wide brimmed hat with the pinched crown was not only practical but was also multi-purpose (in a manner of speaking). It could be worn with suits, how Captain Hastings played by Hugh Fraser, wears it in Poirot Investigates or by Dr. Benjamin McKenna (depicted by James Stewart) in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Or you could team it with your leather jacket and soft shirt and loose pants as is worn by Indiana (Harrison Ford). You also see Fedoras being worn by Hollywood’s mobsters be it The Godfather’s Sollozzo or  Charlie in the 1994 flick The Specialist. Without doubt the Fedora lasted longer than most of the other hat styles. In fact, as a variation the Fedora continues to be used as a special fashion accessory by some men.


And then there was the Trilby

As is the Trilby. The Trilby is a narrow brimmed hat that started gaining popularity in the late 1950s and through to the late 1970s. Throughout that time we see Hollywood’s leading men don the Trilby again and again. If it wasn’t on Bond’s head in Dr. No, starring Sean Connery, it was on Gene Hackman’s head in The French Connection. The Trilby also had a strong fan following among leading jazz singers, especially Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. We also see Sylvester ‘Sly’ Stallone put a Trilby on his head in the very first Rocky. Like the Fedora, the Trilby can sometimes be seen as a special fashion item in some wardrobes and can be carried with panache if you have the correct sense of style paired with a high dose of confidence.


But it’s the Baseball hat that got the home run

The one headgear though that is currently ruling the roost, and has been for a couple of decades now, has to be the baseball hat. Practical and casual, it pairs perfectly with the casual ethos of the times we live in. Its uses are versatile for the most part, which means you can pretty much wear it anywhere. As long as you don’t try to match it to a suit. And if you can manage to carry that look off, well, what can I say. Hats off to you.