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The Fall of the American Hat

Published: April 3, 2010

Where are the hats of yesteryear?

Once, the sidewalks of our cities were bobbing oceans of headgear: bowlers, boaters, bonnets, bretons, panamas, pork pies, and pill boxes. Then, mysteriously, hats were left in the back of coat closets, eventually making their way to attic trunks, then… oblivion.

But in the young century, hats were everywhere. Consider the below photograph from 1900. It shows New York’s Fifth Avenue on Easter Sunday morning, and not a single bare head.

Of course, this was the Easter Parade: the one day of the year set aside to display your best hat.

The parade had grown out of the custom of wealthy New Yorkers to stroll the sidewalks after church, there to mingle with their peers and display their family, clothing, and carriages. By 1883, the event had become an annual event where men and women would display their Easter best, particularly their crowning glory: tall, lustrous opera hats for men and elaborate, be-ribboned bonnets for women.

Naturally the event attracted crowds of citizens who weren’t among New York’s social elite. At first, they enjoyed simply watching the parade of fashion, but they soon were mingling with the fashionable set both in church and on Fifth Avenue. You can imagine the reaction of New York’s elite, as noted by a Post author in 1955:

“As early as the mid-1890s, the New York Time complained dismally about ‘visitors from the East Side, shop girls, clerks, and all sorts of “metropolitan outsiders” who had thrust themselves into the parade’ where they had no business. By 1897 so many ‘outsiders’ were invading the Avenue on Easter that churches began issuing admission tickets to their memberships. At St. Patrick’s, a group of eager females tried to beat some ticket holders out of their seats. They had got in via a ladder that some workmen had left near a window… After a brief but spirited fisticuffs, police came to the rescue of the ticket holders.”

Ah, those were the days — when New Yorkers fought crowds to get into church.

Inevitably, the parade of genteel fashion took on a more democratic character, and a carnival atmosphere with no definite purpose except celebrating Spring. As the Post article observes:

“Americans… are perplexed by the Fifth Avenue event because it has no apparent beginning, ending, organization or purpose. Swarms of people just show up from no place in particular, march — perhaps ‘trample’ is a better word — for two or three hours, then go home. The main promenade route is the eighteen short blocks on Fifth Avenue between 42nd Street and Central Park, centering at 50th Street, near St. Patrick’s.”

The 128th Official Easter Parade will be held this year on April 4th. It will look nothing like the photograph above. Fashion — hats, particularly, will be an important feature of the event. Many will be intended to amuse, looking something like parade floats for the head. But there will also be samples of New York’s millinery industry, which still clings to life.

In 1963, Muriel Fischer reported on the millinery market, which at the time was a strong, durable industry.

“Some 40 firms have been in the business for better than 25 years. (Yet few newcomers have entered the field in the past five years.) At least seven establishments loudly proclaim. ‘We’re the largest and the oldest!’”

It was one of the last, great years for hats, and the competition was intense.

“Millinery seasons are short and violent. The peak periods are the 10 weeks prior to Easter and the 10 weeks prior to Fall. Yet there’s never a lull. For if the industry isn’t making hats it’s planning hats, and it’s always busy talking hats.”

“Roughly 60 million units of millinery are sold per year. In the overall accounting, 80 percent are in the below-$10 category, only 3 percent in the over-$35 salon group.”

The article lists several of 1963′s most important hat designers:

“Sally Victor and Mr. John are generally acclaimed the crowned heads of couture’s royal family. Also include are Lilly Dachè, Adolfo, Emme, Chanda, the house of Hattie Carnegie, and a dynamic young newcomer called Mr. Halston.”

Just 30 years-old at the time, Halston was to become famous for his skills in draping the feminine form in solids of classical elegance.

“It was Halston who created the ‘Kennedy pillbox.’ He smiles at the recollection. ‘I made it for her long before the inauguration,’ he relates. ‘Funny thing is when she put it on she dented the top of it—pushed it in, I guess, holding it against the wind. lt was photographed that way, and soon I noticed all the women wearing pillboxes were pushing them in. Halston also made the large rolled brims Jackie wore to India. He estimates that ‘fifty percent of the downtown business was based on that hat that season.’”

In the highly competitive market of that time, hat-makers could only produce a few styles each year. They hoped that one of their styles would take off, but to ensure their profitability they stole designs from each other.

“In his race to prepare a line for the selling season, the 39th Street manufacturer often finds it expedient to steal. ‘How many designers do I have?’ chuckles Harry Samet. ‘Two who work in my place—and one hundred and eighty working for others. So they call us pirates. But we compliment them, don’t we?’

“Lilly Dachè agrees. ‘When they stop copying me, ah, then I am finished.’

“Piracy is encouraged by the Millinery Institute of America, an organization sponsored by the downtown manufacturers, the uptown creators and the Millinery Workers’ Union. ‘Let’s face it,’ expounds Charles Rothenberg, who heads the Millinery Institute of America. ‘It is the ability to copy down, mass-produce and render fashion at the lowest price level that makes the American woman the best-dressed female in the world.’

The institute seeks to encourage women to buy six hats per year. (Current estimates pinpoint the odd fraction of 2.8 hats per woman.)”

So what happened to America’s hats? One reason for their decline is their loss of usefulness. We no longer need to cover our heads in our brief walk between vehicles and buildings.

Some historians claim the hat died when hairstyles became more luxuriant. Others state that President Kennedy set a trend for hatless attire (although he definitely wore a hat on state occasions.)

Not a hatless soul to be found in 1880's 5th Avenue. (Library of Congress)

In fact, both of these factors were part of a larger influence. In the 1960s, American society broke with the tradition of serious attire. The trend-setters among young Americans didn’t want to dress for respectability as their parents had, but for comfort. They also wanted something that reflected their own generation. They wanted to advertise the studied casualness of youth in jeans, shorts, t-shirts, and athletic wear. The suit, the tie, and the hat became historical artifacts.

The hat has made a meager comeback in the form of baseball caps. But caps are nearly indistinguishable, and anonymous. The crown may proclaim a baseball team or a seed company, but they say almost nothing about the wearer.

In contrast, a hat is a prominent display of its wearer’s character and taste — and Americans generally aren’t comfortable making  such a bold statement.

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  • Margaret Bell

    As we mourn the death of the hat,
    remember, as well, the cravat.
    It too is passe
    in the world of today.
    It went the way of the spat.

  • Ima Ryma

    Ladies and gentlemen once wore
    Headwear to show off to their world.
    The wearer could be a big bore,
    But as long as a hat was squirrelled
    Upon the head fashionably,
    Whoever would surely stand out.
    But today anonymity
    And casual are more about
    The headwear styles that now are worn.
    The once in hats share their outcomes.
    Old fashioned hat styles now adorn
    Mannequin heads in museums

    From the low class to the high bred,
    The baseball cap now rules the head.