“I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country,” Raymond Chandler’s famously precise private eye Philip Marlowe observed in 1940’s Farewell, My Lovely. “What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun.”
The hat, a fedora most likely, was once as crucial to detective work as a sidearm and trench coat. And utterly masculine.
The same could be said about the business of hockey. Archival black-and-white shots of famous National Hockey League coaches such as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Punch Imlach or Toe Blake of the Montreal Canadiens invariably show them wearing a hat at work behind the bench. And behind them, nearly every male in the crowd was similarly attired.
Throughout history and up until the 1950s, hats—fedoras, trilbys, homburgs, bowlers, top hats, tricornes—were considered an essential component of a man’s outfit. Only peasants and beggars went bare-headed. Hats were both a status symbol and a universally required fashion accessory. European tastes for beaver felt hats were even a significant factor in Canada’s early economic history. And there existed a lengthy set of rules covering when a man should doff his hat, when he should tip it and when he should leave it on. It was thus a mechanism for showing respect in public as well. But that was a long time ago.
The rise of youth culture in the 1960s quickly turned the hat into the headgear of out-of-touch old fogeys. Your grandfather wore a hat to work; enough said. And in a flash, the hat disappeared.
Men’s heads have not been entirely bare since then, of course. The baseball cap achieved an unfortunate ubiquity beginning in the 1980s. Many observers have dutifully lamented the ball cap’s lack of dignity, style and etiquette. As Canadian essayist Mark Kingwell has argued, there are only three situations in which a grown man should be seen wearing a ball cap: jogging in the rain, playing baseball and fishing. Anything else ought to be recognized as a desperate attempt by middle-aged men to look “young, sporty and athletic . . . a project doomed to failure,” he writes.
There have been brief revivals of proper men’s hats over the years. Hipsters have long used the hat as a sign of their own unconventionality. And recently the cable television show Mad Men, which glorifies the sartorial look and social insouciance of the advertising world of the early 1960s, spurred a revival of grey suits, thin ties and fedoras. But these efforts are deliberately backwards looking or ironically retro. If the man’s hat is to make a full-fledged comeback, it must be as a symbol of youth rather than nostalgia.
Could it already be happening?
This week saw the unveiling of uniforms for Air Canada Rouge, a low-cost leisure airline slated to begin flying this July. In keeping with the new airline’s youthful target market, flight attendants will eschew the business attire familiar to mainline airline staff in favour of red sweaters, ties, scarves and low-rise grey pants. The most noteworthy accessory, however, is a jaunty chapeau.
Both male and female attendants will be wearing a grey pinstriped snap brim trilby when Air Canada Rouge takes off this summer. “It’s a man’s hat, but it looks great on any woman,” reports Milene Vaknin, who designed the uniforms. “It’s like Glee in the sky!” reported one blogger. Is it the beginning of a trend?
Obviously one carefully managed corporate effort to make itself appear hip with the younger crowd doesn’t constitute a full-fledged fashion reversal. Yet alongside Air Canada’s unisex trilby, it’s worthy noting popular singers such as Justin Timberlake, Usher and Neo have also taken to wearing hats lately, upping the cool factor considerably. No one who might consider themselves to be a fan of Justin Timberlake will remember their father or grandfather going to work in a hat. So perhaps the connection between the hat and dreary conservatism has been severed; in its place a new trendy, youthful and urban image may be in the works.
A return of the man’s hat—if we are indeed witnessing the early days of its revival— ought to be welcomed. It makes practical sense for a man to cover his head in many situations. And yet the popularity of the ball cap has infantilized men’s fashion, in no small part because it never comes off. A proper man’s hat, on the other hand, is stylish, mature and respectful. It is worn outdoors, at sporting events and in elevators, tipped to recognize acquaintances and removed at meal times. A hat elevates polite society and adds grace to the streetscape. If women start wearing them too, so much the better.
Hats off to more hats.