HATLESS JACK — The President, the Fedora and the Death of the Hat.

By Neil Steinberg

Granta Books, 342pp 12 pounds.

Reviewed by Ian Whitcomb


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to


       I had no idea that there’s a sociology of hats. Does there also exist one of gloves, walking sticks, or underwear? I already own an edition of the century-old  “Illustrated History of the Rod” and have derived much pleasure from it, if no edification. Such byways and back passages are a comfortable entry into hardcore history. In this case we are presented with an alternative window into that ever-hot personality President Kennedy, heroic Everyman of his age and the bane of the United Hatters International Union. Cheated by chance at achieving much in his presidency, he was lucky to wear a crown of haystack hair. Like James Dean death brought him glory, and his hatred of hats and casual schoolboy rejection of old-time dress codes places him squarely as a man of his times. He was the first American president to bare his hair and he is blamed for destroying the hat trade. Yet he was actually following a trend of hatlessness that had started decades earlier.

       Neil Steinberg, a Chicago newspaper columnist, has assembled a mass of facts concerning men’s hats, erected a thesis about how decorous uselessness is a safeguard against chaotic individualism (or rampant relativism, as the new Pop would have it) and made an almost 300 page book. It’s a funny and fascinating read and, at the end, a sad story on how social duties and smart, if conformist appearance has been drowned in a sea of denim and baseball caps. In the 1950s my father went to work in a bowler unthinkingly. The day may not be far away, says the author, when the boss demands: “And where is your baseball cap?”?”

        For the most part, nobody wears a hat today, despite a language that preserves such clichés as “ at the drop of a hat”, ” talking through your hat”, “old hat” and “high hat”. Yet correct headgear was required — sometimes demanded at pain of death — from the end of the Wars of the Roses to the start of the Vietnam War. A permanent fixture of male wardrobe in an ordered world of monitored social convention, the hat told people who you were. Top hat, boater, beetleback derby, snapbrim fedora. Without a hat you were hopeless, a nobody. Magwitch in the graveyard is “a fearful man” because, among other things, he is “a man with no hat”. In Lord Dunsany’s 1914 play, “The Lost Silk Hat”, a gentleman caller, locked out of a house due to lady trouble, is distraught: “ I must have my hat. I can’t be seen in the streets like this”.

       In the zenith of men’s hats — the 1920s — “not one man in 10,000 would risk being the butt of ridicule by failing to conform” stated a dress code book of the time.

The right hat at the right time: Straw Hat season started in spring, ended on the dot of September 15 and beware those who disobeyed: a John Finn of Philadelphia punched off the tops of twenty straw hats before being arrested. “It was worth it” he grinned. You see, it was two days into Felt Hat Day. President Coolidge broke that law too but when he walked straw-hatted he was protected by Secret Service agents. Anyway nobody much cared because he was a kook who shaved in a homburg and refused to use a telephone because it was undignified.

       There was an orgy of hat-smashing in the 1922 involving New York kids 1,000 strong armed with impaling poles. 500 ruined hats were found piled up in one doorway alone. Was this a rebellion of the young against conformity or was it a put-up job by the haberdasher industry, even then alarmed by a growing hatlessness. The hatters must have been pleased at trend reversals in the Old World: Kemel Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, took a bold stand against hidebound Islamic culture by outlawing the fez and enforcing the wearing of Western hats as a sign of modern civilization. “A fearful fire”, he said, “ which consumes those who ignore it”. And in Mussolini’s Italy the Fascista, having already banned cats in Rome, ordered all Italians to wear straw hats from April 1 to October 1.

       Politics apart hats had always been useful: to keep out the sun and the rain; to hold apples for feeding your horse, to cover the laps of aroused males as they watched chorus girls or women in trains. And for disguise as in the case of the woman who was unable to describe the father of her unwanted baby because: “He had his hat on at the time”. Hat etiquette was an excellent thing: the doffing and tipping of the hat to one’s superiors, or just a touch of the hat to a passerby. The language of the hat included not only describing a deep gymnastic curve when encountering a fancied or noble woman but also the jaunty, raked or slouched angle to indicate one’s mood or attitude to life. My mother’s gentleman friend used to merely touch his trilby when encountering his ex-wife even at a Tesco. George Fox, founder of the Quakers, told his followers to tip their hat to no one and so got thrown out of 17th century England, going on to America to continue stirring things up and thus contributing to that contrarian strain in American culture. Yet hats could also be alter egos as when in the 1920s and 30s men bought passage for their hats on globetrotting journeys. One lonely hat, a Missouri resident, bore the legend, “Spent night in French Legation in Guatemala City, calling at all night clubs”. As the hatters’ slogan claimed “Your Hat Is YOU”.

       To illustrate the decline and fall of the hat consider first the fate of the poor clerk in George Gissing’s 1888 novel, “A Life’s Morning”. Losing his hat in a train leads eventually to the hero’s ruin and an early grave. George Orwell considered this as “a protest against the form of self-torture that goes by the name of respectability”. Then, second, there’s the report of two admen in the early 1950s sent to meet their new client, Stetson Hats. “You did bring a hat with you”, asks Cox. “Hell, Ed”, replies Daniels. “I haven’t owned a hat for years”. These were men of JFK’s generation, fellows who liked to go sockless, or with shirt untucked, who drove convertibles with the wind and the rain in their hair, who equated freedom with being outside and active. Vitality is what JFK’s people had lots of, and they were in stark contrast to the fustiness of the Eisenhower generation. Nixon lost to Kennedy partly because he still wore hats and kept losing them over and over. He was Old Hat to Kennedy’s New Mop.

 In vain did the Hat Corporation of America pressure the new President to wear a hat, any hat. You’ll look older and prestigious, correct and not so boyish. They pressed on him everything from a hangover hat, filled with a liquid for keeping a correct temperature, to a clear plastic one with a carrying handle.  At first the president would entertain the hatters but finally he’d had enough and banished them from Camelot. As “Time” magazine reported,” They bothered him more than discussions of the Bay of Pigs or what he was going to do in Berlin”.

       In the end the age of the hat died with Kennedy. The hatlessness trend ushered in the counter-culture, of letting it all hang out and doing your thing. The coming of long hair eclipsed the plight of the hatters. We look forward now to a tieless, jacketless, shapeless future in which, instead of tipping our hats to street society we shout into mobile phones.  On entering a hotel we are not judged by our hat but by our credit card. We are free at last! But I agree with Hilaire Belloc who, foreseeing the passing of the hat in a 1940 Sunday Times article wrote,” I should regret it, as I regret the passing of any custom or of any tradition, for these are the furniture of human life”.


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to