There’s a line in the Stephen Sondheim song “The Ladies Who Lunch,” from “Company,” in which the character played in the original production by Elaine Stritch asks, “Does anyone still wear a hat?” That was in 1970. Now, more than 40 years later, those of us who remember them can still ask, “Does anyone still wear a hat?”
The answer is almost no one, male or female, wears a hat for fashion. The only time I see hats on women is when I pass near an African American church on Sundays. There are no hats on fashion runways; no hats on the red carpet at the Oscars. There are no hats in most churches.
Those of us over 50 know full well that it wasn’t always like this. Men and women used to wear hats. Just watch any movie made before 1960. Men wore hats to work. Men wore hats to the ballgame. And I’m not talking about baseball caps. They wore real hats, like fedoras and derbys and homburgs. In summer, they wore straw hats. My grandfathers wouldn’t think of going “out” without their hats.
Women’s hats were an entire industry. Women wore a different one with every outfit. If you wore a coat, you wore a hat. And it wasn’t just for well-off women. Even working women in the movies and television wore hats. Even hard-boiled dames in Raymond Chandler stories wore hats. Lois Lane picked up her hat every time she was leaving the Daily Planet building.
Head coverings were actually required in many Christian churches until the 1960s. I remember there was a nun at the front door of my church who used to pass out handkerchiefs and tissues to girls who forgot their hats. And of course, Easter bonnets were a real thing back then. Women wore elaborate hats to Easter services. And the hat was the chief attraction at the Easter Parade.
The women’s hat industry was so big that they had a special name for a person who designed, made, trimmed, or sold women’s hats. He or she was called a milliner. It’s a word that has disappeared from our world like cobbler and blacksmith.
If I had to speculate at the one event that helped to killed men’s hats, I’d say it was the appearance of President Kennedy at his inaugural in 1961 standing in sub-freezing cold without a hat. Apparently, he wanted to have photographs showing him hatless next to President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon, both of whom were wearing hats. That was supposed to show that he was a young man of great vigor. It sounds to me like something Vladimir Putin might do today.
Anyway, apparently hat sales plummeted after that as America bought the idea that hats were old-fashioned. And when soon afterward the Catholic Church dropped the requirement that women wear hats to church, the writing was on the wall for milliners.
Of course, hats have never gone away completely. Every so often some celebrity appears wearing a porkpie, a pillbox or a Panama hat. But the days of regular men and women wearing hats for fashion are probably over.
Today, hats are worn for utilitarian purposes — to keep our heads warm in winter and protect them from the sun in the summer. But although I hated as a boy when I had to wear a hat when I got dressed up for a special occasion, I did like looking at other people wearing them and I still do.
Does anyone still wear a hat? Well, now that I’m a grandfather, maybe I’ll start wearing a hat to look the part. I’ll bet I could rock a fedora.