Rules of the Hat

by Alexander Freeling

This year I broke a rule I didn’t know I’d made: no hats at home. It wasn’t intentional, I realized, but over the years hats, like shorts, had become things to wear only in warmer climes (which is to say: not Britain). There were a couple of practical reasons for the change. One was my aforementioned DIY haircutting woes; another was the travel restrictions which made longer-distance trips distinctly more complicated.

A day or two after breaking my accidental covenant, with a navy blue baseball cap in wool flannel (as I said, British weather), I realized the error of my ways. It was versatile, unfussy, and soon began to feel necessary. Why had I ever deprived myself? It’s not like I now had to catch outfield balls (is that right?) But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised: rules on headwear run deep in Anglo culture.

You’re probably thinking that I mean social conventions, but sometimes the law gets involved. Collectors of unusual laws like to cite various state codes making it “unlawful to wear a hat or any other covering of the head which obstructs the view of other persons in any theater,” but most hat laws are more about commerce than fashion. The Hat Act of 1732 was a piece of colonial British legislation intended to protect domestic hatmakers from competition from their North American counterparts by restricting their rights to export products and take on apprentices. (Not to be confused with the Hatch Act, which concerns unfair advantages of a different kind.) On a happier and less monopolistic note, in 1879 a Michigan public health law created an obligation for railroad corporations to “provide a uniform hat or cap” for employees (though it also provided for fines if they didn’t wear it).

Then we come to the etiquette manuals. The high-toned De Benneville Randolph Keim wrote in 1889 that “under all circumstances of private life or public occasion the greatest courtesy is for a gentleman to raise his hat or to remove it entirely if the occasion be appropriate.” And when is that, you ask? Primarily when encountering ladies, but also “a civil officer of very high rank.” 

Fellow manners expert Eliza Bisbee Duffey concurs. “A gentleman never sits in the house with his hat on in the presence of ladies. Indeed, a gentleman instinctively removes his hat as soon as he enters a room the habitual resort of ladies.” On the other hand, EBD also advises with great seriousness: “never lean your head against the wall as you may disgust your wife or hostess by soiling the paper of her room,” so you might want to take that with a pinch of salt. 

Hat anxieties are surprisingly long-lived. A century later in Clothes and the Man, Alan Flusser declares gravely that “hat wearing, with its Old World flavor, carries with it a body of etiquette that should be respected. This is both the pleasure and the responsibility it gives the wearer.”

Hat etiquette easily becomes hat prejudice. This passage appears in a 2004 guide for graduate students, which I won’t name for the sake of the authors: “Baseball caps are very useful to supervisors since they are usually a good indicator of a student whose dissertation should be supervised by somebody else (preferably a loathed colleague).” One problem with baseball cap kids, we learn, is that they favor “any research topic involving the internet.” The authors are, perhaps to their misfortune, professors of computer science.

But these haughty complaints pale in comparison to the obsession—verging on madness—around the close of the nineteenth century concerning straw hats. Specifically, when in late summer to stop wearing them. Many American towns and workplaces declared a straw hat (or white hat) day each year, after which their use was punished with mockery and sometimes destruction. By the afternoon on white hat day 1877 at the New York Stock Exchange, “at least one-third of the brokers doing business on the floor were bareheaded, and dozens of crushed white hats were whirling in the air or ornamenting the gas brackets,” one newspaper reported. Local papers around the North East and Midwest observe heated arguments, mayoral interventions, and on occasions, riots.

In 1895, the Autumnal Straw Hat Association formed in Boston to defend victimized headwear. Thankfully, we have little need of their services and every reason to indulge on a sunny afternoon all year round. Now I just need to see about the shorts.

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