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.