by Steve Gottschling

The baseball cap is an indoor hat. I know that sounds weird. You probably wear yours only when outdoors and remove it when you go inside. Maybe you voiced mild befuddlement when Morgan Freeman attended the SAG awards wearing a black one. But there he was, the brim low on his brow, until Rita Ora implored him to raise it a bit so the audience could see his face, which by then had shaped into something between amusement and annoyance.  

None of the news outlets covering the show could pin down a reason for Freeman’s cap. But the reason is clear: the baseball cap is an indoor hat. And for further proof, we need only shift our gaze to the current lifetime achievement award holder for ceremonial cap-wearing, composer Steve Reich. He wore a cap while shaking Prince Charles’ hand to accept an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Music. He wore one while accepting his Pulitzer prize in 2009. Wearing caps in large indoor spaces is Steve Reich’s thing.

But unlike Freeman, Reich discusses his cap frequently. In a 2016, he told the Globe and Mail:

“This is my kipa – this is my way of squaring the circle, of being able to be comfortable in the various worlds in which I find myself. In synagogue I have a regular yarmulke on, but outside, I wear the hat. I wear it on stage and I feel good that I can do that – that I've found a solution, a way of maintaining a couple of 1,000-year-old traditions while still not trying to force myself on people.”

Reich’s cap isn’t just celebrity insouciance. It shows how decades of social changes can collide into a single garment. In the 70s, after the counterculture and all the squares it influenced began embracing identities that had been overlooked or suppressed in the West, Reich jumped aboard a wave of renewed interest in Judaism. He enrolled in a religious education class at a Manhattan synagogue. He picked up Hebrew. And then came the cap.  

Reich’s display of faith was coy compared to what happened in the decade prior. In 1962, according to a paper by Aminadav Grossman, the American Jewish Congress convinced the governor of New Jersey to let men wear yarmulkes to court after a judge forced an Orthodox Jew to remove his yarmulke at a traffic hearing. In 1970, after the New York Stock Exchange’s policy of prohibiting the yarmulke prompted a Jewish employee to complain to the City Council of Human Rights, the Exchange reversed course and let workers wear the hat after all. Meanwhile, a meeting among Jewish advocacy groups shows the degree to which students were bringing their yarmulkes to the classroom:

“...over the years the practice of deeply observant Jews in covering their heads during the waking hours, has become firmly imbedded [sic]. In fact, it is apparent that increasing numbers of Orthodox Jewish youth are beginning to assert themselves by wearing yarmulka [sic] in public schools and colleges. This is in sharp contrast to a previous era when Orthodox Jews, sensitive to the hostile attitudes of the Christian world, compromised themselves by removing their skull caps in public spaces.”

But even after so many American Jews fought for the right to wear their yarmulke in public, Reich chose the cap. And that is less a fault against Reich than it is a testament to the cap’s meaning-shifting, comforting ways.

Unlike the fedora, which carries its history like a wet sock, the baseball cap picks up and sheds meanings at will. The same blank cap that helps a barely undercover celebrity thwart the paparazzi could drift onto the head of a fast food worker without disturbing anyone’s idea of peace.

And while baseball caps have always been malleable-- declaring allegiance to both sports teams and military branches-- the design itself is like a telephone booth for the head. The crown is just the right size for the scalp, the brim just long enough for the brow. Nothing protrudes further than it has to, no extra fabric to curl jauntily toward an unconsenting audience unless the wearer swivels the hat himself. It simultaneously reveals part of the wearer to the world, while giving him enough of a ceiling to feel like he can keep something to himself.

None of this, of course, tells us what Freeman is hiding. But whatever it is, we know it is safe.