Few accessories have been more roundly mocked in the past several years than the lowly fedora. Once associated with cool guys like Humphrey Bogart and Indiana Jones, the wide-brimmed beauty has become synonymous with online harassment and a steady diet of Hot Pockets. Forget, of course, that most “fedoras” are actually trilbies (please, please forget it), and recall instead that before this hat style became almost universally panned, it (or something similar to it) was worn on a daily basis by the majority of middle-class men for decades.
The drop-off in hat wearing was fairly precipitous. Prior to the mid-1960s, most middle-class adults in the Western world didn’t go outside without some kind of cover, whether it was a Panama, cloche, fedora, beret, or silk scarf. Archival photos of events around the turn of the 20th century show seas of caps and hats in just about every crowd shot — until sometime before the Summer of Love, when they all but disappeared.
This is a well-documented turn of events, and one that plenty of people — mostly men hoping to revive the glory days of millinery, it seems — have pondered for years. Why, they wonder, did we all stop wearing hats?
Of course, this is an overly simplistic question; plenty of jobs and lifestyles still mandate a cover for protection or as part of a uniform. But daily hat wearing — a stovepipe, a top hat, or, yes, even a fedora — really dried up in just a few generations.
To establish why that is, one has to examine why anyone wore hats in the first place and what changed to render them unnecessary.
The Primary Purpose of a Cover
In a 2014 episode of the Freakonomics podcast, hosts Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt discussed why people — and by “people,” they mean chiefly white-collar men in the Western world — no longer wear hats. Levitt explained that he believes it was simply a shift in taste, stating that “fashions changed immeasurably, and I think of a hat as being mostly about fashion.” Dubner, meanwhile, chalked it up to a cultural movement — again, in the white, Western world — away from religion.
It’s true that humans have been putting objects on their heads since they first stood upright, and that for centuries head coverings for all ages and genders have been used for a variety of reasons, from the ceremonial to the commercial. Headdresses, crowns, wigs, and hats historically have been worn to demonstrate wealth, power, status, and profession, as well as to pay homage to a higher power. Covering the head was, and remains, integral to many religious practices.
However, a listener who is something of a professional wrote in to let Dubner and Levitt know that neither style nor secularity explain the significant shift away from hats as an everyday staple.
“I would like to note that for…most of the human history, hats were protective garments. We are not spending as much time as we used to out in the open environment,” wrote Dr. Babak Givi. “I think our ancestors had developed the habit of wearing hats out of necessity, not fashion or religion. But of course through the millennia, we start adding religious, fashion, and symbolic meanings to wearing hats.”
The good doctor isn’t incorrect. Outside of the faith community, head covers have largely played a utilitarian role. In nonworship settings, one of the primary reasons for a cover is simply to keep a person’s head warm, dry, clean, or out of the sun.
Basically, hats have been essential in many, many cultures as a way to protect a person’s dome from the elements.
A hat could protect a person from the rain, the wind, or the soot from local smokestacks. Long before SPF 55 was readily available, hats were also the single biggest protector from the sun. The sweatband could catch beads of perspiration before they got into your eyes. And at a time when showering regularly wasn’t especially feasible, hats could also keep environmental dirt and grime away from the hair.
The advents of standing showers, shampoo, and an interest in more stylish hairstyles were very much a part of the hat’s demise. Every time a man removed his cover, he’d need to recomb his hair, which was often slicked back or parted to the side. As longer, more styled hair became the style in the 1950s — think Elvis’s close cut and James Dean’s artful mess — coifs and covers were at odds.
The modernization of the Western lifestyle also brought with it new protections. The first pair of sunglasses, introduced in 1929, helped eliminate the need for a brim to shade the eyes. Sunglasses were further developed for soldiers during World War II, and by the mid-1940s, they had become popular among regular folks. Additionally, the first sunscreens were introduced to the public in the late 1940s.
Lifestyle changes also contributed to the hat’s obsolescence. Industrialization and modernization meant, for much of the population in Western Europe and North America, spending less time spent in the fields, doing laundry outdoors, or walking long stretches at a time. As such, a hatless head wasn’t a liability, but instead a mark of liberation.
It would be incorrect, however, to say that people suddenly looked around and realized they could go outside without their customary cover. In addition to changes in the environment and lifestyle, the downfall of the hat has long been linked to politics. In fact, many armchair historians will still tell you that the hat became a thing of the past when a certain man took the Oval Office — though that is not strictly accurate.
Which President to Blame: JFK or Ike?
Presidents are rarely on the cutting edge of fashion — James Monroe was woefully off-trend, and it seems unlikely that Donald Trump will usher in an era of ill-fitting suits and gigantic ties — but two leaders of the free world are most often fingered as the ones who killed the hat.
First, there’s handsome, dapper, Catholic John F. Kennedy, who famously appeared at his inauguration in 1961 without a hat. Kind of.
In the collective memory, JFK has been frequently blamed for the downfall of the hat. This is due in large part to our anachronistic recollection of his inauguration on January 20, 1961. Kennedy did, in fact, forgo his hat during his swearing in and speech, as seen in file footage. Looking at the film, however, it’s clear that he’s not the only one without a lid; many people in the audience, even after the part with the hand on the Bible, are not wearing covers.
“It is true that Kennedy almost never wore a hat after becoming president,” reads a Snopes article about this particular theory of the hat’s demise, “but his hatlessness was much more likely the continuation of a trend that had long since begun, not its origin.”
Kennedy continued to go hatless for the majority of his presidency and was often photographed with his hair blowing in the breeze. This — and not so much the inauguration itself — is more likely the root of the idea that JFK was responsible for the hat’s decline. But that also wasn’t uncommon for the time; by the mid-1960s, hats were pretty sparse in crowd shots and footage. In fact, Snopes points out, numerous other presidents had been party to the decline of hats in public — most notably, JFK’s predecessor.
RadioLab co-host Robert Krulwich argues that it’s actually Dwight Eisenhower who brought the hat down — though less directly.
Writing for NPR in 2012, Krulwich explains that perhaps the hat’s fate wasn’t the result of a sartorial choice, but rather one related to infrastructure.
This theory falls much closer in line with the reality of the changes that the United States and much of the Western world was undergoing after World War II. As our lives began to look different, fashion followed.
“Until cars became the dominant mode of personal transport, there was no architectural reason to take your hat off between home and office,” wrote Krulwich. “With Dwight Eisenhower’s interstate highway system came cars, and cars made hats inconvenient, and for the first time men, crunched by the low ceilings in their automobiles, experimented with hat removal and got to like it.”
Industrialization already meant people walked less — public transit brought people inside for their commute — and the popularity of automobiles only furthered what mass transit had begun. The car’s less-spacious ceiling, though, certainly contributed to the hat’s decline.
Hat wearing did not, however, go gentle into that good night. Before the fall of the fedora was complete, there was one big push to save it.
The Struggle to Save the Hat
Before World War I, ready-to-wear fashion was already dealing substantial blows to the bottom lines of local hatters, and it only became more dire in the postwar world. Like many other objects, hats became more expensive but less well-made (inflation and increased material costs drove up consumer prices and reduced access to textiles, prompting manufacturers to cut corners and hike costs), but they were also more readily available. The shift toward cars and clean hair certainly wasn’t helping, either — and hatters were feeling it.
In the early 1940s, a group of “136 manufacturers and more than 3,500 associate retail members started the first industry-wide sales effort in hat history” for the sole purpose of keeping the hat in style — and, specifically, encouraging men to purchase their hats not from a chain store, but from a recognized hatter.
Under the moniker “the Hat Research Foundation,” the group pooled its resources to take out ads in prominent publications. The foundation — which was really just a way for hatters like Stetson to stop a growing movement that threatened sales— was designed to “discourage the recent tendency of men not to wear hats,” according to a 1955 report from the Ford Foundation. The Hat Research Foundation sponsored events like National Hat Week, put money behind pop music, and tried to place positive press about the continued popularity of hats.
A 1949 New Yorker article quoted E.A. Korchnoy, president of the Hat Research Foundation, as saying that college students had begun “going without hats as a symbol of status,” an alarming development that he sought to correct.
“Candidly,” Korchnoy told the New Yorker, “the hat, as part of the ensemble, has been neglected far too long.”
The piece also quotes Korchnoy as stating that college students were finally coming back to hats, and that the tide would certainly turn.
That was not to be, though; the foundation’s efforts fell short. Despite heaping cash into its campaign to keep hats cool and chic, the industry couldn’t manage to get ahead of the day’s new styles. While older gentlemen continued to don their high-crowned hats whenever they left the house, younger people simply weren’t moved by the marketing.
“The hat industry is troubled by the current trend of fashion,” read the remarks of Representative Abner W. Sibal of Connecticut in the congressional record from 1962. Sibal represented many hatmakers and had quite a few milliners among his supporters and donors. On that day, he read a piece that had run in the Christian Science Monitor, quoting spokespeople of the hatmakers union who were concerned they’d soon be out of work: “The union doesn’t blame the first family for this trend, but it does wish that the President or Mrs. Kennedy would appear more often in hats.”
The article goes on to note that “too many men are completely out of the hat market now,” and that a number of them “do not own a single hat.”
According to the article, the industry attempted to create new styles that might woo the younger crowd, but they simply weren’t buying it. The problem, it seemed, wasn’t with the kind of hat, but hats in general.
Hats Off to Future Millinery Situations
It may no longer be a requirement for the business-casual set, but it’s disingenuous to say that no one wears a hat anymore. Religious head coverings remain very much a necessity both in daily life and places of worship; cold weather still mandates a warm hat in the world’s icier climates; and caps are still part of many uniforms, from ball players to bellhops.
In fact, hats seem to be ripe for millennial tastes. Stetson has tried to reach out to younger audiences with hip cowboy hats, while companies like Ebbets Field Flannels have embraced the love of nostalgia and well-made goods. High-end, handmade millinery has made a comeback in the craft circuit, and the resurgence of ball caps (so-called “dad hats”) as part of a normcore look has fast-fashion retailers like Forever 21 cranking them out. Even fancy knit caps have become an in-demand fall and winter item, thanks to the Instagram accounts of trendsetters like Kylie Jenner.
None of this would likely please the likes of Representative Sibal, who believed that only a brimmed felted number would do. But given the way accessories and aesthetics swing in and out of fashion, it’s entirely possible that the put-upon fedora could someday see a comeback — though it’ll likely need a bit of time and a different Most Hated Hat (the newsboy, perhaps?) to take its place before all of the negative connotations fizzle away.