There are few clothing items that have experienced such a rise and fall in popularity as the hat. If you look at photos from 100 years ago, everyone wore a hat – indeed, it was unthinkable that a man would leave the house without his hat on at a time. But now, it’s a rare sight to see a hat – outside of certain contexts, such as a cap for the sun, it’s highly unusual for a person to be seen with something atop their head. I think it’s a shame, but it also raises the question – what happened to them? Why don’t men wear hats anymore?
In order to understand what happened to the hat, we should try to understand why they were so prevalent in the first place. Humans have been putting objects on their heads since they first stood upright, and the motive was usually utilitarian – headcovers were needed to keep a person’s head warm, dry, clean or out of the sun. As Dr Babk Givi explains: “For most of human history, hats were protective garments. I think our ancestors had developed the habit of wearing hats out of necessity, not fashion or religion.” Protection was not the only reason, though – many hats had a ceremonial or religious explanation.
The outbreak of war helped fuel the decline of hats
Hat-wearing was at its peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was essentially entirely out of fashion by the 1960s. Many of the reasons for this share the same basic factor – as life modernised, the needs for hats became increasingly fewer. Sunglasses and sunscreens were available by the late 1940s, meaning there was no need for a hat to protect the wearer from the sun. Standing showers and shampoo meant that every time a man removed his hat, he’d have to recomb his hair. As more styled hair became the style in the 1950s (think the hairstyles of Elvis or James Dean) and people copied them, it didn’t make sense to cover them.
One of the key factors was the advent of the closed car. As covered cars became more popular, the height of the roof meant you generally couldn’t wear a hat when driving and there was no need to anyway. When people were walking through the streets, riding horses or travelling in open carriages, a hat was useful protection from the elements, but with fewer people using public transport and walking due to the rise of the car, it simply wasn’t as necessary.
For men, in particular, the outbreak of war helped fuel the decline of hats. At the end of World War II, many men did not want to wear hats with civilian clothes because it was an unwelcome reminder of the time they’d spent in uniform. According to a 1947 survey for the US Hat Research Foundation (HRF), 19% of men who did not wear hats gave “because I had to be in the army” as the main reason.
As generations changed, attitudes towards the hat changed with them
It’s worth noting here a common myth about the decline of hats – according to many armchair historians, President John F. Kennedy single-handedly brought down the hat by not wearing one at his inauguration in 1961. This is not strictly accurate – Kennedy wore a top hat which he removed before his speech, but in truth, the decline had started years before. Many other people in the audience at the time weren’t wearing hats, an indication that Kennedy was simply reflecting the times: “It is true that Kennedy almost never wore a hat after becoming president, but his hatlessness was much more likely the continuation of a trend that had long since begun, not its origin.”
The hat didn’t vanish without a fight from the industry. A 1946 campaign by the HRF claimed that “You Need A Hat To Work Magic” to try and arrest the decline – a 1949 New Yorker article quoted E.A. Korchnoy, president of the HRF, talking about his plans to tackle the alarming development that college students had begun “going without hats as a symbol of status”. In England, there were reports of people who walked bare-headed in hat-making towns such as Denton and Stockport being abused by workers who saw their livelihoods threatened. But the writing was clearly on the wall – as generations changed, attitudes towards the hat changed with them.
This is not to say that hats are gone entirely. Baseball caps are still fairly common, while Stetson has tried to reach out to younger audiences with hip cowboy hats. But they’re certainly no longer the cultural force that they once were, and I can’t help but think that’s a bit of a shame.