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Hats make the man: a writer and historian takes a look at headgear and what it means to Latino culture.

"Recently, among young Americans of all ethnicities, there has been an upswing in demand for hats--and this is particularly true amongst Latinos."

Hats are a huge part of Latino culture.

It is not just a matter of a newly returned son bringing his Mexican father a "Tejana" as a sign of respect. Although distinctions have somewhat blurred in recent years, a trained eye can distinguish by the size of the crown and the width of the brim whether a sombrero's wear is from Zacatecas or Jalisco. In Mariachi and other musical forms, musicians jealously hold onto the headwear heritage of times past. Needless to say, working vaqueros on both sides of the border do so as well.

But the transition to urban life in the United States has not lent itself to the preservation of traditional hats--or traditional clothing of any kind. The economic difficulties of many Latino immigrants arriving in a new urban environment made fashion a low priority.

Add to that the general collapse of standards of dress in mainstream America since the mid-1960s (a glance at a Madmen episode will show what I mean), and you have a situation where Latinos--and Latino men in particular--are not generally renowned for their fashion sense.

Latinas are another matter. They have always looked better in serious hats than men.

Felt hats give women an air of attractive mystery (think Agatha Christie in her Cloche hat, eyebrow level, with her striking blue eyes peering from below the brim). Worn appropriately, serious hats confer on Latinas an unsurpassed air of authority and majesty like Lucero, donning a high-crowned Rancher in the aptly titled telenovela, Soy tn duena (I own you); already in her forties when she sported the Rancher, the soap opera star never looked more stunning.

This was not always the case with Latinos. In the 1940s, zoot suits became the rage among young Chicanos (thanks to actor Tin-Tan), African-Americans (broad-brimmed hat tip to musician Cab Calloway), Filipinos and Italians.

It was and is easy to laugh at their hats and coats, complain about the amount of material used to make them (the reason used for the ban on such wear), or condemn them as subversive--a byproduct of the so-called "Zoot Suit Riots" in 1943 Los Angeles. But, introduced by jazz musicians as they were, Zoot suits represented a longing for style and elegance on the part of those on the margins of American society--a society that in those days prided itself on those very qualities, and above all required men to wear hats.

Be they panamas, homburgs, or the then ever-present fedoras, few men appeared without them, regardless of race, creed, or color. In Mexico, this look was epitomized by the notorious film-noir actor, Juan Orol--who, at least in terms of hats--was comparable to Humphrey Bogart or Alan Ladd.

That changed with President John F. Kennedy, who is often credited with single-handedly killing the wearing of men's hats (although he was the last president to wear a top hat to his inauguration). Within five years of his death, the wearing of jackets and ties (other than in increasingly fewer work or social situations) waned, as did that of dresses and skirts by women some time later.

Today most people wear what earlier generations would have called play or work clothes all the time. Perhaps they make up in comfort what they lack in elegance; but unless an individual is well-built, they do not flatter.

Mexico remains a bit more conservative. In addition to the continuing relevance of the sombrero, Mexicans in office situations still tend to dress more formally than their northern counterparts.

Recently, among young Americans of all ethnicities, there has been an upswing in demand for hats--and this is particularly true amongst Latinos. One particularly knowledgeable witness on the hat scene is Victor Cornejo, whose career was examined in last month's issue.

Having got his start in the hat business with the Stetson Hat Company, and making his name with them by designing cowboy hats designed especially for Latinos, he has branched out. Learning what appeals in dress hats--in terms of material, color, design, and so forth--to African-Americans, Anglos, and various other communities, he is spectacularly well-placed to discern what is happening in this sphere.

"Among Latinos, wearing fedoras and other dress hats is not a question of heritage. That is maintained by those who still wear the different varieties of cowboy hats. It is purely a question of fashion. More and more younger people are wearing them."

Is this a permanent development?

"Fashion is like a wave. It comes in and goes out, and in my career I have certainly seen times when hats were more popular than others. People see a given fashion in movies and television, it is picked up by designers and magazines, and then it is in shop windows. Right now, in addition to our usual lines, we are providing hats for fashion houses, department stores, film companies, and on and on. But fashions change."

Maybe so, but as a lifelong fedora wearer, I hope this one sticks around a while.

Charles A Coulombe is a Los Angeles-based writer and a Historian. He is the author of several hooks, including "The Pope's Legion: A history of the Papal Zouaves." He is also a lifelong fedora wearer.
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Title Annotation:FASHION
Author:Coulombe, Charles A.
Publication:Latino Leaders
Date:Oct 1, 2015
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