How the Trump Hat Became An Icon

Bright red hats emblazoned with the words “Make America Great Again” dominated the crowd celebrating in front of the Capitol. The hats were a powerful reminder of the dramatic change in power about to unfold in Washington and became prized possessions for some of Trump’s supporters.

Mark Stroman bought five hats from a street vendor for friends back home in Los Angeles, acknowledging the political divide the apparel represented.

“I think that they brought some divisiveness,” Stroman said. “They made a great divide between Democrats and Republicans but I think they made people pay attention, they made people wake up.”

Campaign swag is easy to dismiss, but Trump’s hat captured how his candidacy disrupted and divided the country. Like many things in Trump’s campaign, it’s hard to conclude there was a grand strategy that led to its success. But its connection with voters — for good or bad — is undeniable.

Here’s the story of how the hat became one of the most powerful symbols in modern American politics.

There were no marketing experts or design research involved in the initial idea for the hat, according to former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.

“I think somebody actually sent us a sample,” Lewandowski told CNN. “They brought that sample to Donald Trump and he said, ‘I like it, let’s tweak this, let’s do it differently.'”

Lewandowski said they tried out different prototypes, different size fonts and styles before they landed on a keeper. After that, the hats were kept on Trump’s plane at all times.

It was a little more than a month after he announced his candidacy that Trump first donned the hat in public at a campaign event. When he made a much-publicized trip to Laredo, Texas, in July 2015 to visit the US-Mexico border, the hot weather necessitated a more casual look than his usual suit and tie.

“Just for the sweat factor and other things, he chose to wear the hat,” Lewandowski said.

At the time, Trump was caught up in a tornado of controversy, from questioning Sen. John McCain’s status as a war hero to speculation about running as a third-party candidate and a Border Patrol union backing out of the visit at the last moment.

A crush of reporters waited for Trump in the small terminal of the airport when Trump’s plane touched down.

“He came around the corner and we all went, ‘Oh!,’ CNN’s Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash, who covered the event, remembered. “I really remember it vividly because it was like, ‘Oh, of course, he’s the master marketer. Why wouldn’t he put it on a hat?'”

Why Can’t Americans Learn to Love Hat?

All the strum und drang over Pharrell’s Grammy’s hat has laid bare a fundamental truth of American life: We don’t appreciate headgear. Sure, we’ve had our periodic flings with fedoras, trilbies, and even porkpies, but hats, once a staple of global fashion, faded hard in America in a way they never did across the sea.

The Brits are big on longevity in all things, style included. Though they’ve faded on the streets, our Anglo friends never abandoned the hat wholesale—London’s dotted throughout with dedicated men’s and women’s milliners. Some, like Lock & Co, have weathered the modish tides for over 300 years. For devoted cap couture in Manhattan, our main mecca is JJ Hat Center, which was one of at least 40 (now-defunct) hatters when it opened its doors in 1911.

Folks spew all manner of stories about the decline and fall of the American hat. Some blame car cabs getting too small to don-and-drive. Some blame fashion icons who stressed hair and figure above all; more blame JFK for removing his hat before his inauguration. Whatever or whoever patient zero was, something about the informality of the suburban 1950s killed the hat. Or at least it killed media and popular adoration for the proscribed elegance and formality of upper crusty events like the UK’s Ascot Races, which is almost definitively not about the horses.

Hat sales are up compared to the ’60s and ’70s, according to the longstanding milliner Paul Meyer of New Orleans’ Meyer The Hatter. Freed of the stodgy memories of our grandparents, we’ve appropriated the hat for our own nefarious, niche counter-culture fashion. But the current hipster affair with driving caps and cloches probably won’t last. We saw similar revivals fizzle and die in the late ’90s and early ’00s. They’re cyclical callbacks at best, and fickle accordingly.

Perhaps the biggest reason American’s can’t vow eternal devotion to the hat is that it’s just too classy for us. And by that, I mean it’s literally full of class. Hats are didactic—big signposts used historically and almost universally to signal faith, social status, or cultural affiliation with all the subtlety of a randy bird of paradise. Like that time in the 1500s when parliament decreed that all non-noble men ought to wear a woolen flatcap. Then the trend stuck as a social norm long after the law lapsed. And, true or not, the American myth touts inclusivity and denies the reality of implicit aristocracy.

A millinery historian recently told me about a wedding she attended, English on one side of the aisle and Americans on the other. Half were hatted and half were hairy. The Americans were more aghast and confused than the Brits, who probably just expected it. No, Brits aren’t feudal. But they’ve still got Public School regulations, Key Regattas, formal weddings, and aristocratic code and classy hattery in their blood. It’s close enough. And while that proper sensibility’s a right fetish for some Americans, many sneer at the stuffy Queen, her stuffy customs, and—by extension—her stuffy, garish headgear.

Hats just feel inescapably un-American for many. Unless we’re on the cusp of adopting a symbolic monarchy (not a terrible idea) and a peerage system, they’re doomed to sprints and bursts of retro fad-dom. Tough luck for milliners—unless they’d like to rise to the challenge.

Mark Hay is a sometimes freelancer based in America and a sometimes grad student hiding out in England.

Americans and Baseball Hats

We all know that lots of Americans like baseball and enjoy wearing things with logos on them. This seems to be particularly prevalent among Americans as compared to Asians or Europeans in my experience – in those places, people will get gussied up if going to a game or maybe a bar where the game is playing, but Americans will wear team memorabilia on a daily basis. It’s not unusual to see people wandering around in basketball jerseys, for instance. Here, in Detroit, people wear Red Wings jerseys all the time. When I was growing up, I had a couple I’d wear regularly as well. Americans like sports and readily show their affiliations with attire.

Some people just like the look of baseball caps in general. They have become associated with certain subcultures, and lots of people wear them for the style. There are entire stores in malls that literally just sell baseball caps of virtually any flavor you’d want – and they’ll make custom ones for you if you wish.

They’re practical. The part of the baseball cap that goes over your head either has elastic in the back or an adjustable strap, so they always fit comfortably. Many times the back of the cap is made of a mesh fabric, which makes them light and cool on hot days. The bill of the cap is longer than basically any other hat form other than a 10 gallon cowboy hat or a sombrero – if it’s sunny, it’s useful to have. (It’s also generally more socially acceptable to wander around in a baseball cap as opposed to a gigantic cowboy hat or a sombrero most of the time.)

Hat wear used to be big in Europe too. If you look at pictures of the Titanic work force, they’re all wearing caps. Back in those days, housing was poor and could be drafty, including during summers, and catching a cold had the potential of doing you in. So reasons abound. Though no longer so in post-industrial society, and year-round cap use has indeed all but disappeared in Europe. Granted, hats survived a bit longer, but vanished overnight when Kennedy (an American) stopped wearing them. Proof that at that time they had already dwindled to merely being a fashion statement. There has been something of a revival lately. Today you will still see caps and hats in the streets of the Old Continent, in all shapes and sizes but, crucially, only when it’s cold.

So male Americans are short of an excuse for keeping their tops adorned with a colorful variety of baseball caps throughout the seasons, both indoors and outdoors, and regardless their age or baldness. Unless of course you would consider the baseball cap an sich as a motivation. The laws of elimination certainly seem to be pointing in that direction.

This has lead me to hypothesize that the humble baseball cap brings to the aspiring US male’s demeanor much more than its menial appearance would suggest. Indeed, upon donning this garment lofty virtues like reliability, predictability, trustworthiness, conformity, sturdiness, levelheadedness, locker room camaraderie (and its implied heterosexuality), gun proficiency and most of all, an innate distaste for all things arti-farti or foreign (or God forbid, both) are said to radiate instantly and profusely from the fortunate owner’s frame, all this for the price of a modest hamburger meal. Only a fool would balk at such generous offer.

Unsurprisingly, none of this has been lost on the highest levels of the country’s leadership, who can routinely be seen calling upon the baseball cap’s magical qualities. And no one more so than the Baseball-Cap-Wearer-In-Chief, Mr Trump. He harnesses as no other its formidable powers, skillfully positioning its visor just above eyebrow level, thereby boosting his already awesome gaze to destructive heights. This is clearly an instrument that, in the hands of the right man, could leave a cinder even the most enduring of enemies.