Whereas it would be perhaps a slight exaggeration to describe the countryside as a stronghold of hat-based activity, certainly it is much more popular there than it now is in all the great metropolises. This is a shame. Men of my grandfather’s generation wore hats with vigour and pride. Today we barely see anything other than that insidious interloper and general scourge of American construct, the baseball cap.
How this state of affairs came about I know not but I suspect it has something to do with hippies and free love. Having watched film footage from “the 60s” I’ve often been taken back by just how much these happy-go-lucky, impish type folk resemble pygmy chimps in their behaviour and have considered a serious anthropological study of the matter. But that is for another day.
The consequence of all this however is the fact that those time-honoured rulues passed down the generations about standards in dress and in life have been lost. England doesn’t have anything so trivial as a proud history in sartorial excellence; quite simply we invented it. From the creation of the suit onwards England is the source of all men’s fashion innovation and it seems a tragedy that most young men, and far too many older ones, seem to take their denim-clad tastes from entertainers across the pond.
However, I digress.
There are a number of hats to choose from when considering what to wear in town. These are the Top Hat, Fedora, the Trilby, the Bowler, the Homburg and the Pork Pie hat and we will address the merits of each in turn. All others are to be avoided, particularly those such as the French beret or the Stetson, as they are not befitting of an Englishman unless visiting the country of their origin. And then only as homage to the natives.
The top hat is now confined only to formal ceremonies where morning dress is required, which includes weddings and at Royal Enclosure at Ascot. Here it is obligatory. Everywhere else it is inappropriate, save perhaps for a funeral director. In this day and age therefore, it is not necessary to own one unless you really want to, for hiring one is perfectly straightforward.
As an aside, legend has it that the topper made its public debut in 1797 when hat-maker John Hetherington wore one in the street. Such a furore did it cause that he had to pay a fine for his behaviour.
I have to confess a love of the Bowler. Along with warm beer, village cricket, the bulldog and Fox Hunting, it is a true icon of England. Like the topper it has a ceremonial role, as part of the urban civilian dress of Her Majesty’s Guards Officers. Unlike the topper however, its use isn’t restricted outside its official duty and a brown bowler looks particularly good with tweed. But a word of caution is in order – wearing one does convey a degree of eccentricity so seek out appropriate opportunities rather than as a matter of course. Judgement in headgear, as in all things, is paramount.
If I have a favourite among the hats it is the fedora. The fedora beats the trilby because its wider brim makes it that bit smarter. True, the trilby has a certainly rakishness about it which in certain circumstances is greatly desired. But this very same quality means it is not appropriate in all settings and as a result, less versatile than the fedora. To put it another way, the trilby suits the jazz musician but not the poet, whereas the fedora could be worn by both equally. Incidentally, and this is only relevant to those who know him, but I’ve always thought my good friend and playwright David Windass would suit a wide-brimmed fedora and perhaps it is something he should consider taking up. It could only serve to bolster further the reputation of this most classic of gentlemanly headwear.
The great thing about the fedora is that it suits practically all outfits that include a jacket, so that is all outfits. A black, brown or gray fedora goes just as well with a jacket and jeans as it does with a Prince of Wales check business suit. Combined with a pair of matching leather gloves you have the blueprint for an exquisite outfit that commands respect.
Don’t get me wrong about the trilby, I’m a fan. But in my opinion it doesn’t have the same panache as the fedora.
The Homburg, with its upward curve to the brim, was popularised by Edward VII. It is in actual fact not an item I have ever had any personal dealings with so I am speaking from a position of ignorance (yes, yes, what is different from normal, ha-bloody-ha). But it is said to rank higher that the fedora and bowler and just below the topper. In the 30s it was a popular item but that has now waned. It also acquired the sobriquet Anthony Eden after its second most famous wearer. I wouldn’t know how to match it precisely so really my best advice is to study old photographs and experience. Or leave it alone, but do not get beneath one lightly, without proper research.
Finally, I’m no fan of the pork pie hat because it lacks sufficient gravitas to make it befitting of a gentleman. However, I recognise that others do and cannot bring myself to despite them for that fact. A pork pie hat is, after all, better than going au naturale.
So there we go, our brief delve into hat etiquette is all but done; I hope it has been of assistance. Many things have been written about headwear over the years but I think its purpose and pleasure cannot be summed up better than the following anonymous quote:
“Fashion is a kind of communication. It’s a language without words. A great hat speaks for itself.”
What more is there to add?