My father's hats.
My father was a hat man--which is to say, he was a man of his times. In 1950s photographs of city streets, nearly every male is hatted: soft caps for blue-collar workers, porkpies and fedoras for white-collar. Pictures of crowds from half a century earlier tell the same story, except that we see straw hats and bowlers. Not long after Dad exchanged his hard hat for a fedora, however, the prominence of the man's hat in America came to an end. The bare-headed Jack Kennedy signaled the arrival of what the Romans once called a novus homo--and this "new man" was hatless and bold. The formality of the hatted gentleman was out; the vigor of the hatless go-getter was in.
Although male headwear returned in the 1980s with the arrival of the ubiquitous baseball cap, hats never reclaimed their place in standard business attire. The baseball cap, softer and rounder than its Victorian, kepi-like predecessor, cut across class lines. On the blue-collar side, it subsumed and replaced a variety of working hats: carpenters, plumbers, electricians and farm workers all embraced its one-hat-fits-all appeal. On the white-collar side, Yuppies borrowed it from Gen-Xers as the visual proclamation of successful men at leisure.
My father remained a hat man to the end, though he never succumbed to wearing a baseball cap. Here it was the absence of a hat that made his story readable: having played semi-pro ball in his teens and twenties, he eschewed baseball caps because he no longer played the game. In his view, any non-ballplayer who wore one was a phony, a man in an unearned hat.
This put Dad in a dilemma when he retired. Baseball caps were out of the question, but for someone who agreed with Oliver Wendell Holmes that "The hat is the ultimum moriens of respectability," facing the world bare-headed was like leaving the house naked. He eventually settled on a solution common among American males of his generation: those small-brimmed, Scottish-looking hats associated with old-timey golfers, variously called "flat caps," "golf caps," "cabbie caps" or "Windsor caps." Often sporting boldly checked patterns, these hats were Dad's sole extravagance. Though I'm tempted to call them "dapper," he would have rejected the characterization as vaguely British--an apt word for David Niven, perhaps, but not for him. He would have been right: "dapper" seems ironic in reference to anything having to do with my father. A broody man given to occasional depression, he wore his golf caps as catalysts for putting on his best face, for looking self-contained and placid rather than worried or sad. He abandoned these caps only on the coldest winter days, for a Russian fur hat that made him resemble a man lost on the tundra--a better match, actually, with the dour expression of his face in repose.
Although a sense of propriety was clearly at work in my father's conviction that a civilized man always wears a hat in public, there was no vanity. At five-feet-seven, he may have appreciated the enhanced sense of presence that hats gave him. I suspect, however, that their appeal had a darker side. An intensely private man, he preferred his hats loose-fitting, which let him wear them low in the front, nearly covering his eyes. Dad's golf caps kept a manageable roof on the world, a sense of limits and boundaries--not least on himself. A man in a dapper hat will be less likely to appear worried or sad. And if such a man is also shy and wants to go about his business unseen, he can simply pull down his hat-brim a bit--as my father often did.
WHEN I WAS growing up, hat racks and hat hooks were everywhere: restaurants, school lobbies, libraries and barber shops. Convinced that hats marked their wearers as adults, I was certain that as a grownup I'd be wearing one all the time, like my father. Nineteenth-century British poet and essayist Leigh Hunt once claimed that children develop "an educated antipathy to the hat" because they go hatless at school. In my case the effect was just the opposite: I couldn't wait to get my grown-up hat.
Winter hats did not count in this calculus of maturation, because all Midwestern males understand the necessity of a winter hat for man and boy alike. Indeed, I grew up thinking that the absence of a hat on a grown-up man, especially in winter, was a sign of either unemployment or unmanly hair-pride. This education in winter hats began immediately: my first extant picture shows a baby in a knitted beret being hoisted in the air against a backdrop of bare trees. In later pictures I'm wearing a stocking cap; still later, one of those fur-lined hats with ear flaps that can be buckled atop the head when not in use. We kids were constantly being warned that eighty-five percent of our body heat was lost through our heads. Whenever I heard this, I visualized a boy with steam--maybe his very soul--wafting up from his bare crown. We took such warnings to heart: mittens and gloves vanished by the dozen, but I don't recall anyone ever losing a winter hat.
With the coming of spring, the hat assumed its usual role for children: an item of imaginative play, a vehicle for trying on an adult self for size. My father's hats saw frequent duty in these games, except for the fedora, which I was forbidden to touch. This was no great loss: I wouldn't have known how to play "accountant" anyway. My favorite was his magnificent hard hat, which made me the object of envy during neighborhood games of war: with my head encased in its springy webbing, dirt clods bounced harmlessly off its surface. I also owned two actual, made-for-kids playhats: a green cowboy hat that eventually lost its shape and ended with the brim drooping all around, like a fisherman's cap; and a Davy Crockett "coonskin cap," which wasn't really made from a dead raccoon but smelled as if it were when wet.
These were exceptions in a non-winter world where kids went hatless, as we were fated to do as post-JFK adults. Only one playmate routinely wore a hat: a man in his thirties whose mental age was around ten and who often joined in our games. "Big Larry," as we called him, was rarely without his white sea captain's hat, a "peaked cap" with a shiny black brim and a gold anchor on the front. The nearest body of water was Lake Erie, fifty miles away, but Big Larry's hat did not seem at all strange. Even though he played with us like a regular kid, we knew that he was really a grownup: hadn't he earned his right to a permanent, everyday hat?
IN THE BEGINNING, of course, all hats were "winter hats"--functional defenses against cold, wind, rain and scorching sun. In colder climates, our Paleolithic forebears wore close-fitting caps stitched together from animal skins. Where it was warmer, the fit was generally looser and the material was woven fabric. In the West the functional hat remained essentially unchanged for centuries. The close-fitting felt cap (Greek pilos, Latin pileus) was the everyday worker's hat--the classical equivalent, I suppose, to the baseball cap. Other functional hats were designed for fighting or traveling. The Greeks called the war helmet a pilos ehalkous or bronze cap; the Roman helmet was a cassis in metal and a galea in leather. Greeks and Romans shared a word for the traveler's hat: the petasos or petasus. This is Mercury's famous hat, and as its broad brim suggests, ancient tourists were not big on vacation tans. The pileus-like Phrygian cap of late antiquity, named for its alleged origins in central Turkey, remained the standard hat of non-elite European males into the Middle Ages. This is the pointy, stocking-like cap that we see in pictures of Dante and Chaucer. Except for materials and workmanship, the hats of our two greatest Medieval poets were first cousins to the sewn-hide caps found on some of the Bog people.
Ancient "playhats"--that is, hats with social significance--came in the Fertile Crescent with the rise of urban cultures and specialized roles and occupations. In contrast to the sameness of functional hats, playhats assumed as many forms as the social elites that they distinguished: priests, wealthy merchants, members of the ruling family and especially the headman of that family, the king himself. The pure but blunt symbolism of the crown made it the ultimate playhat: the big man got to wear the big hat. The crown also anticipated the transformative magic of the 1950s child's playhat: it invested whoever wore it with the very power that it signified. If you wanted to change the king, you removed his hat; if you wanted to change the kingdom, you changed the hat itself. Upper and Lower Egypt could not be unified until someone thought to combine the southern crown and the northern crown into a double crown--two playhats in one--so that nobody would feel left out. In the city-states of Mesopotamia, where rulers wore conical caps that echoed warrior's helmets, the king deferred only to those whose hats were bigger than his: the gods. Carved at the top of the Code of Hammurabi is an image of the Babylonian king receiving the laws from the sun god Shamash. Like brothers dressed for church in the 1950s, they are wearing matching hats, except that the god's hat is stacked three layers higher.
The Greek elites, with their ostensibly democratic bent and their proto-JFK taste for the natural look, generally went hatless unless they were fighting or traveling--and in this, as in most things, the Romans followed suit. But classical headgear, when it appeared, still carried social and occupational significance. A headband marked the Olympic athlete and the charioteer; a laurel wreath the poet or orator. The magnificent toga, which was forbidden by law to be worn by anyone but the wealthy, had a status-marking "hat" built into it: its ample folds could be pulled up, hood-like, to shield aristocratic heads from the elements and, of course, from the prying eyes of the hoi polloi--a winter hat and a playhat rolled into one.
THE ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN crown leapfrogged Greece and Rome to reassert itself in Medieval Europe. In its broad sweep, Medieval history was a tug-of-war between quasi-centralized kingdoms and semi-autonomous fiefdoms: a struggle over not only who got to wear the big hat, but how many people could wear big hats at once. Medieval noblemen did not shy from elaborate playhats: asserting their status as petty rulers, they wore conical contraptions that resembled personal Towers of Babel. This movement toward bigger hats for more people extended into the Renaissance. With the rise of the merchant class, technical improvements in fabric-stiffening and tanning and the increasing complexity of social niceties in town and at court, the luxury hat came into its own.
Thus began the Golden Age of the man's hat in Europe. The sixteenth-century hat of choice, often called the German barett, was a large soft hat with a turned-up brim, which eventually widened into a "halo" brim that was often pinned up, or "cocked." As the century progressed, the hat crown stiffened and rose--a none-too-subtle emblem of the Renaissance Male feeling his oats. The rising crown culminated in the capotain, the basic "Pilgrim hat" that we remember from grade-school Thanksgivings. Seventeenth-century Puritans generally kept their capotains dark and narrow-brimmed, but Cavaliers let the brims spread out like manta rays until the man's hat became a work of baroque art, often with colorful feathers. The young John Donne positioned himself between Puritan and Cavalier extremes when he posed for his portrait in an immense capotain: although its insanely wide brim is tipped at a jaunty angle, the hat itself is a somber black.
The Age of Reason had trouble rationalizing the fancy hat, and many early eighteenth-century gentlemen exchanged hats for wigs. When the hat returned later in the century, it was in the chastened form of the serviceable "three cornered" hat: George Washington's tricorne. This hat was further simplified into the bicorne: Napoleon's hat. This simplifying of men's hats culminated with the French Revolution, which brought the return of the original people's hat: the old Phrygian cap. Given its revolutionary symbolism, the Phrygian cap might be called a winter hat that became a playhat, a hat with significance. The Republicans' motto could have been Liberty, Equality and No Big Hats--and as the saying goes, heavy was the head that wore the biggest one. Louis XVI lost hat and head in one fell swoop.
Burgeoning commerce in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries led to a further democratizing of luxury menswear, and playhats once again began to look like playhats. It was at this point that the gentleman's hat became a fashion statement, a volatile index of shifting tastes. My Davy Crockett cap was by no means the first hat to generate a frenzy: by the end of the eighteenth century nearly every hat began as a fad. In the 1790s, Beau Brummell's London saw the "dandy's" hat, with its flat top, narrow brim and wide and often flared crown: think of Lewis Carroll's Mad Hatter. This hat quickly rose and narrowed into the classic top hat or "stovepipe," destined to become the archetypal formal hat but originally an everyday item. Now it was not kings or aristocrats who wore the big hat, but capitalists. If Eustace Tilley could speak from those New Yorker covers, he would insist that a big man in shipping or banking deserved an imposing hat no less than a big man in politics or war. The top hat became so big as to be unwieldy, a troublesome burden when carried; in 1812 a French hatter named Antoine Gibus obligingly invented a collapsible model.
At mid-century came a popular hat first manufactured by a pair of brothers from London named Bowler; in America this hat was called a derby. Soon afterward came the homburg, a sporting hat with a soft, deeply indented crown. During this period Italy became famous for its hats, as improvements in the industrial production of felt, developed chiefly in Turin and Monza, made the luxury hat even more affordable. Another Italian hat, the straw boater from Tuscany featured in Renoir's light-drenched boating party, became a summertime rage throughout Europe and America. In 1906 Teddy Roosevelt created another "peak" in hat history by dedicating the Panama Canal in what instantly became known as the "Panama" hat. With the introduction of the flat-topped porkpie and the round-topped fedora in the early 1900s, the man's hat finally stabilized. Porkpies and fedoras would still be appropriate in a small-town Ohio accounting department half a century later.
IN DEFIANCE OF the post-Renaissance hat as a reflection of fashion trends, one kind of hat has always symbolized the opposite of change. I'm talking, of course, about religious hats. The sacred hat, which typically preserves a particular historical moment in the development of a religious tradition, has replaced the crown as the quintessential playhat: once you don one, you become what it stands for. According to an old rabbinical saying, the Jewish yarmulka is a reminder that "There is always something above you." As outward piety grows, so does the hat: from the simple kippah to the Hasidic shtreimel or kolpik. Catholic hats mark out a pious hierarchy by individuals rather than groups. The priest traditionally wears either the tufted biretta or the simpler skullcap or zucchetto, also called a pileolus after its ancient origins. A Catholic bishop wears a mitre, pointed if he is Roman and bulbous if he is Orthodox. In addition to the bishop's mitre, a cardinal gets "the red hat," a scarlet zucchetto. And until fairly recently, the pope got the biggest hat of all: the three-layered papal tiara that replicated, in gold and silver, the High Priest's headdress of ancient Israel.
Anti-hierarchical dissenters who embraced Luther's "priesthood of all believers" stood the sacred hat on its head, so to speak. Quaker George Fox articulated the Reformers' view that no man's hat was holier than another's. "When the Lord sent me forth into the world," Fox declared, "He forbade me to put off my hat for any, high or low." The old-order Amish continue to find piety in the everyday hat as a tangible rejection of ecclesiastical, political and military authority; in keeping with the conservatism of holy hats, Amish men wear the everyday Alsatian farmer's hat of the eighteenth century. The Protestant disdain for fancy hats wound up influencing Roman Catholicism: after Vatican II, Pope Paul VI reasserted papal humility by laying the tiara aside. No pope has worn it since.
By their hats ye shall know them. As the sacred hat makes especially clear, however, throughout most of history this wasn't a matter of being known in a personal way: people haven't always been autonomous "individuals" in the sense that we moderns are. This held true until the Renaissance, when humanistic philosophies began to chip away at the social person to expose what we might call the "inner" self. Although this increasing stress on private selfhood produced some extravagant men's hats along the way, it didn't reach its logical conclusion until the countercultural Sixties. Because the past two centuries had offered fewer expressive options in men's clothing than in women's, the call to do one's own thing seemed to bode well for the man's hat. If there ever was a time for men to don self-expressive hats, it was the Summer of Love.
We missed our chance, of course. There was no "hippie hat," unless you count the headband or bandanna. A few "heads" went for the Whole Earth Catalog look with floppy woodsman's hats, and some opted for vaguely nautical caps--the Jim Seals or early John Lennon look. There was also John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas in that ridiculous fur hat. But if Phillips was trying to start something, nobody followed him. You couldn't very well celebrate the age of "hair, long beautiful hair," by covering yours with what had recently become the second most potent symbol of male subservience and constraint, surpassed only by the necktie. The result was a moment of special irony in the history of American male fashion: a mere decade after JFK took our hats away, we could have worn any hat that struck our fancy, convention be damned. For better or worse, an alternative history was lost. If we had done our own thing hat-wise, imagine what might have appeared in subsequent years: investment bankers sporting huge purple fezzes, driving instructors in wide-brimmed Zorro hats, maybe even a retired accountant in a shiny top hat--all calmly going about their business, observing and being observed with the splendid ease of men effecting infinite self-actualizations through their hats.
So much for all the hats that might have been. My childhood assumption about grownups and headwear has been overturned. Nowadays only kids wear hats, a custom reinforced every spring when college graduates toss their mortarboards into the air. This reversal requires new Scripture: When I was a child I thought and spake and wore hats like a child, but now that I am become a man, I have put aside childish hats. The 1980s Canadian pop band Men Without Hats had a good run but a short one, most likely because their name was too banal. Except for those pesky baseball caps, aren't we all men without hats?
THERE WAS A time when a gentleman's choice of a hat reflected a deep commitment. Leigh Hunt observed that "we are not fond of a new hat" because we get too attached to that "true friend," our old hat. John Clare, the half-mad "Peasant Poet of Northamptonshire" and Hunt's contemporary, adored his floppy bucket hat, claiming it was a gift from Gypsies and writing his poems on it. The new hat demanded nearly as much allegiance, not as a friend or fetish but as a pricy bauble--the equivalent of a new car losing half its value when it leaves the lot. Hunt, pondering the new hat the day after its purchase, described its inevitable fall in Miltonic terms: "How altered! How dejected!"
That's a lot of emotional investment in a hat: maybe JFK did us all a favor by giving us one less thing to worry about. Besides, can't a man get so attached to a hat that he gets trapped in it? Hunt alluded to hats as agents of self-fossilizing when he observed the military veterans of his day clinging to their old bicornes despite the popularity of round hats with brims. These aging warriors, he observed, "could not willingly part with their habitual dignity": indeed, an old military hat might well be kept "in memory of its victories when young," like wearing one's service record on one's head.
History shows that the decision to stick with a particular hat cannot be made lightly. Once a hat becomes personally iconic, it's yours for good. Henceforth and forever, you will be a one-hat man. The young Walt Whitman chose wisely: his rakish slouch hat in the frontispiece portrait of Leaves of Grass was perfect for his free-and-easy speaker. The young Jack Donne chose less wisely, unaware that Dean Donne of St. Paul's would someday have to live that mammoth capotain down. I feel for him: who knows what monstrosity I might have selected in the late Sixties had I been given the option?
Shakespeare, too crafty to get trapped in a particular hat, trusted bravely to his balding head, but not everyone had his foresight. Think of Washington, doomed forever to hold--rarely wear--that blue tricorne; or Napoleon with his ever-present bicorne; or Charles De Gaulle, hawk-like and haughty in his kepi. Would we even recognize Honest Abe without his stovepipe, Sherlock Holmes without his plaid "deerstalker" or Roy Rogers without his white Stetson? Indeed, the iconic hat can overpower the face beneath it. Set a porkpie atop a nondescript face and you've got Buster Keaton. Replace the porkpie with a toque and you've got Wolfgang Puck, Replace the toque with a horned helmet and you've got Erik the Red. Trade the helmet for a green cap with a feather, and the man becomes Robin Hood. Trade the feathered cap for a khaki garrison cap and he's Eisenhower on V-E Day. If our imaginary hat-model were to don my father's sub-zero hat, he'd be Ike's old adversary Khrushchev--unless he had a goatee, in which case he'd be Lenin.
WITH THE DECLINE in the actual wearing of hats, their symbolic power has increased, though not necessarily their legibility. Every. hat nowadays is a playhat, a prop for projecting an identity that may or may not be genuine. This trend is summed up in that Texas saying about a man being "all hat and no cattle": by their hats ye shall know not necessarily thena, but who they're trying to be. To be sure, classic Westerns relied on white hats and black hats to define the moral landscape, with Roy Rogers on one side and Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven on the other. But the symbolic reliability even of iconic hats has been compromised. Didn't the black-hatted Brynner turn good guy by training townsfolk to defend themselves? Didn't Richard Boone's Palladin wear a black hat? And good-guy Garth Brooks?
Despite this interpretive confusion, some of us still cover our heads with objects that we hope will be read in certain ways. Although the Romans claimed that clothes make the man, a carefully chosen hat offers an even quicker take on the man whom it makes. These playhat-enhanced dramas are going on all around us. A factory worker from Cleveland who dreams of country music stardom will not go onstage at that club in the Flats without his cowboy hat. A young man in St. Louis clutches a sheaf of poems as he shuffles toward a microphone in a black beret that signals, if only for tonight, a working poet and not a refugee from a shorthorn ranch who has enrolled in an MFA program. A tourist who finds himself in a sketchy Brooklyn neighborhood at night instinctively turns his baseball cap around so that he resembles either a hip-hop performer or a baseball catcher without his mask: either way, he feels safer than he did a second ago.
The man's hat has become less a physical object than a piece of visual shorthand that is sometimes legible and sometimes not. Although a movie or cartoon explorer without his pith helmet is just a guy in a jungle, most hats have become impossible to read. The only place to see a crown nowadays is in Burger King commercials: has the crown come to mean char-broiled? Lincoln's top hat no longer connotes dignity, but has instead been consigned to chimney-sweep ads in the Yellow Pages and middle-school magicians; professional magicians have long since abandoned it for the David Copperfield, regular-guy look. The beret has been rent into antithetical meanings: if green it signals the toughest of the tough, the Special Forces; but if black it signals the jazz musician--or our young poet--trying to prolong those beatnik days. Even the baseball cap has become schizophrenic. Peak forward, it graces every living head at Tru-Value, Walmart or Best Buy on a Saturday afternoon. But as our Brooklyn tourist knows, when worn backwards it conveys street-smart disgust toward everything for which Tru-Value, Walmart and Best Buy stand. Wear the cap forward as you fill your cart; now turn the bill around and leave all that middle-class crap behind with a sneer.
The man's hat is like a gong reverberating long after it has been struck. We still "know" hats, but we know them in the same way that we know potters' wheels, shoe-trees and typewriters. The hats we remember best, the famous media hats, have all gone to the pop-culture museum: Ralph Kramden's busman's cap and Ed Norton's sewer-worker's porkpie; Abbot's slick fedora and Costello's eloquent derby; Laurel and Hardy's black bowlers, less headwear than visual props; the floppy bucket hat worn by Gilligan on his island; the mammoth turban of Johnny Carson's Carnae the Magnificent. The raggedy hat of the cartoon bum, its torn crown hanging in a flap, shares exhibit space with the shabby stovepipe of Dr. Seuss's Cat in the Hat and the "old slouch hat" that Dean Martin extolled, with Whitman, as perfect for "just bummin' around." Martin's insouciant hat, however, is an exception in popular songs, where the hat usually suggests going first-class for a change: "Puttin' on my top hat" with Fred Astaire for an escape echoed in the call to "grab your coat and get your hat" en route to "the sunny side of the street."
As late as 1983, ZZ Top included a top hat among the essential props of the "sharp dressed man" who gets all the ladies. A fancy hat, however imaginary, might even get you an otherwise unattainable lady, as the fictional Thomas Parke D'Invilliers suggests in Fitzgerald's motto for The Great Gatsby:
Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her; If you can bounce high, bounce high for her too, Till she cry "Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover, I must have you!"
Fitzgerald's frantic suitor wouldn't be wearing that gold hat if he didn't want the woman: clearly, he's trying way too hard. But suppose he wins her: sooner or later he'll have to take off that hat--and then what?
If hats can be deployed this cynically, it's hard to take them seriously. And yet, a lack of faith in our own hats might be prompting us to take other people's hats too seriously. There's precedent for this in the various outsider hats of American history: Indian headdresses, African masks and the "coolie" hats of Asian immigrants, the latter replaced with the Mao caps of Asian Communists. Given the recent political climate, the sombrero would be demonized were it not for the fact that the first thing an illegal immigrant acquires in this country is a proper American hat: a baseball cap. Nowadays, of course, the most potent icons of otherness include the keffiyeh, the more elaborately wrapped cheche, the Jinnah cap, and that bewildering diversity of wrapped headwear which Americans lump together as the "turban." Although these head-borne symbols of Not Us prompt discomfort whenever they turn up at airports, they shouldn't. The poet Alexander Pope wore a fashionable turban in early eighteenth-century London and never once, so far as we know, blew anything up. And Charles Manson must have worn a baseball cap at some point in his life: Manson was Not Us with a vengeance, but if we ran every time we saw a baseball cap, we'd have nowhere to go.
THAT THE HAT was once indispensable is underscored by the basic nature of the relevant etymologies. The Anglo-Saxon "Haet" is cognate with the Old German, Old Norse and Old Teutonic words for "hood." "Cap" is even older, stemming from the proto-Indo European word for "head," the origin of both the Latin caput and the German Kopf. Now, of course, the man's hat is going the way of the "petard": we know that it's bad to get hoisted on one, but we don't know what it is.
Someday we won't remember what men's hats were--the inevitable outcome of the hat's gradual transformation into a metaphor. The once-literal custom of tipping our hats as a sign of respect has already fossilized into an imagined gesture: today we "tip our hats," often begrudgingly but never actually, to someone who has bested us at something. Baseball players say this all the time about the team that has just defeated them, but they're about the only men left who could act on their words, which they never do. When ballplayers concede, more darkly, that "we got our hats handed to us," they're also telling what could still be a truth.
Colloquial speech preserves other verbal traces of that fabricky thing which men used to wear and which used to have so intimate a relationship to its wearer. A memory of this intimacy recurs in such phrases as "wherever I hang my hat is home," though home has no peg for the nonexistent object that supposedly defines it. The male politician will continue to announce that he's "throwing his hat into the ring" even though he wears no hat for fear of matting his leonine, Kennedyesque hair. When our politician needs funding, he will approach potential donors with "hat in hand" and ask them to "pass the hat," thereby using the same archaism for both his heart and the money that keeps it pumping. Sometimes a hat symbolizes the head rather than the heart. A discreet man keeps a confidence in his head, or "under his hat," and when he is about to blab, he warns us to "hold onto your hat." If he seems too proud of his insider's knowledge, we might tell him to check his long-forgotten hat-size.
A dim memory of the versatility of hats survives whenever we complain about having to "wear many hats" at work, where our performance hinges on whether we don our "thinking caps" or forget to, and thus wear the "dunce cap." If we've done a really smart thing on the job, we've pulled a nonexistent rabbit out of our nonexistent hat; if we do it three times, the boss might acknowledge our "hat-trick" with a raise. If we're dull but opinionated, co-workers might accuse us of talking through our hats. Our uninformed pronouncements might even make them mad as hatters.
UNLIKE MY FATHER, I have no scruple against baseball caps, which I began wearing in my mid-forties. This was not entirely due to vanity. While attending an academic conference in San Diego, I spent a hatless June afternoon walking the beach at La Jolla with three equally clueless English professors from the East and Midwest. Surprised that night by my peeling head, I bought a cheap baseball cap the next day. Several months later, when a small literary magazine sent me a baseball cap as payment for an essay, I took it as an omen.
I'm less brave than Shakespeare: matted hat-hair seems a small price to pay for concealing the monkish bald spot on my crown, a precise echo of my father's pattern. I'll also concede that I feel younger and hipper in a baseball cap. Deep down, though, I'm enough of nay father's son to appreciate the defining limits of a peak above nay eyes, a chaos-reducing frame through which to view the world. As Dad knew, a hatted head feels more protected than a bare one, even if what threatens it is psychological rather than meterological. While my father's hats made him feel more upbeat, mine make me feel more tranquil: it's easier to avoid being a hot-head under the regulating containment of a baseball cap.
I now live just outside of Washington, D. C., where winters are mild by Midwestern standards. My winter hat--a thick stocking cap--is necessary only around ten days a year. The rest of the time, unless I bravely decide to leave the house hatless and thus naked, I'll choose one of three baseball caps: one plain, one featuring the logo of that literary magazine and one with the logo of a local Ford dealership. Hanging in my office at the college where I teach is a hard hat, the relic of a summer job at an Illinois tank farm and, I hope, an effective comic prop for defusing difficult student conferences. Although these hats might not tell my story as legibly as my father's hats once told his, they'll have to do. A member of a hatless generation has to start somewhere.
At the moment indoors and hatless, I am studying photographs of my father in his various hats. Here's Dad on the pipeline in his hard hat; in the next shot he wears a pipeliner's soft hat, like a striped engineer's cap with the brim turned up. Here's the sailor, his white Dixie cup cocked at a jaunty angle. And here's the accountant on a business trip to, of all places, my current city, where he strides down Pennsylvania Avenue in a wool coat and a pulled-down fedora. A series of declining-father pictures follows, more of these because there were more cameras around, and in every outside shot Dad is wearing one of those Scottish golf caps. These pictures form a partly animated flip-movie: the face ages from picture to picture, but except for color and pattern, the hat stays the same.
The last of my father's golf caps was more subdued than most. A Christmas present from my mother, who always had better taste, it was solid gray. When Dad died last year at the age of eighty-nine, I asked my mother if I could have it. Still smelling of his hair, this was the hat that got him to the end--a fitting memento, along with three sweaters and his company pin, for me to bring back from Ohio.
This hat, now hanging with my baseball caps near the front door, seems destined for future use. The day will come--if it hasn't already and I just don't realize it--when baseball caps will start looking silly on me. On that day I'll realize that these caps no longer convey midlife male ease, but instead make me look like a man who is trying too hard, like Fitzgerald's gold-hatted bouncer. I've noticed, though, that among men only a decade or so older than I am now, golf caps are still in fashion. Although this is an alarming recognition, it's oddly comforting to know that I'm pretty much set, hat-wise. As a child I waited patiently for my grown-up hat. Now I realize that this hat is waiting for me.
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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