In matters of personal style, hats often generate mixed feelings as even the most assured gentleman can feel the fear of overdoing.
Hats are frequently considered to be accessories that are not only superfluous but downright ostentatious, transforming their wearers into show-offs. Today, hats seem to be more accepted if they are needed as protection against rain or sunshine. To think that a few decades ago, hats were de rigueur for men and women alike…Our era ranks among the rare times in history where most people do not wear hats.
Film-maker and traveller Burton Holmes shot a few reels that give an idea of what Paris was like in the 1920s’—a period when homburgs and straw hats, three piece suits and pocket squares are not just common, but prevail !
Cars and bikes are sometimes blamed for the disappearance of the hat. It is said hats became too unwieldy and flew off too easily in transit and so out of necessity, the once strong preference for hats gave way to a hankering for caps. In reality, social, economic and cultural factors converged to result in a more casual style for the mainstream, which created a big shift in contemporary meanswear. Hat-wearing was part of the sartorial order that gradually disappeared after World War II, much like the diminishing of ties and pocket squares.
Trilby or Fedora ?
And yet, the hat is making a comeback, not only in classic menswear but also, paradoxically enough, among hipsters, rappers and other popular icons who are followed by fans who emulate their sartorial fads. In pop culture, personal whimsicality is the only rule that prevails.
Several categories of headgear have come back in the fold, especially the casual trilby, often made of cheap fabric. The trilby may be sported to give an ‘artsy’ look and has even been referred to a ‘jazz trilby” as an attempt to cash in on a musical cliché without much grounding — except for pianist Jason Moran (historically, jazz musicians wore fedoras like every one else).
With its smaller crown and narrow brim, the trilby owes its name to the 1894 theatre adaptation of the eponymous novel by George Du Maurier whose main character wore a hat that made the name famous.
The fedora, a wider-brimmed felt hat, was named after a play by Victorien Sardou staged in 1882. Sarah Bernhardt chose to act Fédora Romanoff’s part with a man’s hat—the name and the hat were immediately adopted by the supporters of the women’s cause. Theatre was indeed a trend-setting influence in fashion. The fedora is sometimes called a Borsalino, after the famous Italian brand.
In the great ‘trilby versus fedora’ debate, the trilby is undoubtedly less sophisticated.
The trilby’s short brim closes in on the face while its shape remains rigid, without the possibility of any variation in shape. In contrast, the fedora is a soft felt hat, whose softness enables the wearer to shape the brim into whatever asymmetrical slant desired.
It’s futile to try to dissect and define rules of formality for the trilby and fedora, because the fedora is not in itself ‘formal’, unlike the top hat, for instance. Also, the word “formal” can be ambiguous if you consider that today, even a necktie or any refined footwear can be referred to as ‘formal’ (remember the famous ‘are you headed to a wedding’ question aimed towards a man who decides to “dress up”).
Formalism and its rules (no brown in town, no tweed in town, etc.) belong to an out-dated past and you may agree—have little to do with personal style as we understand it today.
In order to define the time and place for a hat, ‘formalism’ is often not the right word to use. A ‘formal’ outfit follows a ‘form’ which usually corresponds to a type of event with specific rules (black tie or white tie, for instance). Remember, social rules that tell us “how appropriate” an outfit is barely exists anymore, except for nostalgia’s sake. In contemporary menswear, it’s rather a matter of ‘casual’ versus ‘smart’ or ‘chic.’
Wearing a hat isn’t about formalism since there are no forms to follow. To make the point, one man may consider a mismatched jacket and trousers with checks or stripes as being smart and dandified, while another man views a solid suit as more impressive, regal and formal.
Yet, the act of wearing a hat with a suit can no doubt, raise the level of distinction of an ensemble. Which means that a man in a smart suit will be considered to be even more stylish with a hat, whether it is a trilby or a fedora—even though, in my opinion, a fedora does add a touch of sophisticated je-ne-sais-quoi …
The Rakish Angle
Of course in classic menswear, the hat should be in line with the rest of the outfit. As an important piece of one’s ensemble, the hat adds not only another colour, but a vertical element to the trousers-jacket-tie equation, which can stretch the silhouette.
You need to know how to wear a hat with confidence and without a second thought.
You shouldn’t cram a hat straight onto your skull… but if your chapeau sits too far towards the back of the head, it can look clownish. Yet, with too much forward plunge, it will hide your eyes or your face. An expert in hats, Frank Sinatra advised to tilt a hat only slightly backwards and tilt it slightly on the side. This is the famous “rakish angle”, like a wink from your hat.
In New York in the last few decades, the black fedora was only worn by Hasidic Jews but it has been the object of a recent revival, especially in casual wear, worn by rappers or as a woman’s hat. With classic suits, black may seem like a neutral colour but is actually difficult to pair with other colours. It seems to be a better match for greys, especially dark grey. The black fedora can be more easily worn at night when hues are less obvious or can be paired with a dark overcoat rather than with one’s suit.
The stylistic chameleon is undoubtedly the grey felt fedora. It is the ultimate every day workhorse as suits and jackets of any colour can work with it—blue, brown, grey, green… While mismatched jacket/trouser combinations need contrast or harmony, hats can be viewed as separate from the rest of the outfit. The general colour is thus more important than specific hues.
Most hat shops offer adaptable grey, blue and brown colours—and sometimes even green. Unfortunately, unless you use the most expensive hat-makers, the boldest colours are often made in less refined wool felt and not fur felt—whose appearance is much more distinguished.
The texture of wool felt is not as smooth and soft as fur felt, which is pleasant to the touch with a supple sheen and delightful mellow quality. Fur felt is made of rabbit, hare and, more rarely, nutria, beaver or marten. It is light and resilient and can be processed in different textures (smooth, fur-like or velvet-ish). Fur felt is naturally impervious to water, whereas wool felt needs a chemical treatment to be waterproof.
The touch and feel of a nice fur felt hat is a tremendous pleasure to a degree that woollen hats cannot match.
The hat lives!
The act of choosing a hat is no different from choosing any other wardrobe component. But finding personal style is a journey that should be taken with the importance of quality in mind. The abundance of cheap, run-of-the-mill products may sometimes make us forget what a real quality hat is. The difference is striking but many of us do not have enough experience to differentiate the good from the bad.
The hat industry used to be a thriving one. It has now almost disappeared from the economic landscape. Stetson and Borsalino may still be around, but many quality companies have folded, especially in France. Such an internationally renowned hat-maker as Mossant, founded in 1833, had up to 1200 workers in Bourg de Péage (Drôme) and turned out 2000 hats a day in the 1920s’ for worldwide distribution. It closed in 1985.
In 1930, the town of Espéraza (Aude) was among the world leaders in the hat industry (with nine million hat exported), boasting 16 factories and 1500 workers who produced millions of hats.
In Tarn et Garonne, Caussade is among the last remaining hat centres even if on a more modest scale. We will come back to this special place in a future article about Crambes, founded in 1946.
Although sales dropped dramatically during the second half of the 20th century (imagine that every man used to wear a hat!), it is not impossible that hats could make a real come-back. First because quality makers are still around (Guerra 1855, Lock & Co, Šešir in Slovenia…), as well as bespoke makers, and felt suppliers (Tonak in the Czech Republic, PolaP in Poland, Fepsa in Portugal). But hats are also very much in line with the sartorial trends cherishing the alluring style of Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant.
With the current renewal of classic menswear, the modern gentleman may well think of spicing up his allure with a hat, a hallowed reference to the golden age of men’s style.