Before the plague of hatlessness drove the hat industry to bemoan citizens “exposing themselves” in public, the seasons were marked by the change of snow to sun and felt to straw. In mid-May, the hard straw skimmer replaced the felt fedora, and people could spend all summer chasing it as it blew off their heads, into the streetcar tracks, or the gutter.
Wearing a straw hat past Sept. 15 was like wearing white pants after Labour Day. People who didn’t follow the strict seasonal rules were subject to ridicule and violence. In 1928, the Globe reported a “well known Communist of Hamilton” wearing a straw hat a few days before the official opening of the season in May. The Globe mocked his hat, which “hove into view on the horizon at 2:22 yesterday afternoon,” and was the colour of “dull yellow so frequently found on senile ducks’ feet.”
Seeing the first Panama hat or straw boater was akin to seeing the first sign of spring, and local newspapers often took note — like in 1927, when a citizen of Lindsay, Ont., was spotted in straw on March 14, along with a flock of 20 wild geese in the sky. In 1930, the first straw hat was spotted on the absurd date of Feb. 20 in Grimsby, while the local police chief was still wearing his fur.
The straw hat was part of the North American summer uniform. Adam Coren, a floor manager and historian at JJ Hat Center, a New York shop that has been slinging skimmers since 1911, said that the typical man would keep a straw hat for two or three summers. You couldn’t really clean sweat and dirt from the brim, but they weren’t expensive, and the hat was seen as a disposable item.
By the middle of September, “World Series prospects and other international issues took a back seat … while the male of the species in the United States went shopping to buy a hat,” the American press noted. Those who extended the season past Sept. 15 knew they risked “straw-hat smashing.”
The custom seemed to originate with young men on the New York stock exchange, who destroyed any straw hat on the trading floor after the appointed date. By the early twentieth century, “Wall Street’s frivolous trick” had migrated outside of financial circles, as boys and teenagers went looking for their endless summer-loving prey.
The smashing may have another origin: Coren mentioned that it was a ritual of a Major League baseball team to start and end the season by punching their felt or straw hats and throwing them on the field. No matter the cause, the stories appeared every September: police surgeons dressing scalp wounds in Iowa, boys menacing small towns and cities, judges shaking their head over the “vicious custom.” It was mostly young boys, but sometimes, women were involved. (There were no mentions of the practice in Canadian papers searched by the Star.)
“I think it was meant to be almost an early punk rock gesture,” says Karyn Ruiz of Toronto’s Lilliput Hats. “I’m sure teenagers could care less about whether somebody wears a hat or not, I think they were just bucking the social convention in a very big way.”
By 1920, a New York judge warned offenders would be imprisoned or fined for the “boorish conduct.” Two years later, on an unseasonably warm mid-September day, a “wild orgy and riot” raged in Manhattan as straw hats were seized upon by “gangs and hoodlums,” and the streets littered with straw in what became known as the “Straw hat riot of 1922.” Police tried to respond but “there wasn’t enough of them and there were too many hats,” the Buffalo Commercial reported.
Hat smashing eventually faded into the footnotes of fashion and civic history. Truth be told, there were fewer hats to tear apart as society changed.
In 1944, the millinery industry urged retailers to fight back against “the menace of hatlessness,” by asking sellers to step up their window displays to “dramatize the beauty and attractiveness of hats.” Trade groups were active in the fight — there was the Hat Council and the Hat Research Foundation, which had its own branch in Canada.
Hat Life magazine recorded the grim sales numbers as the hatless took to “exposing themselves every day of the year,” as the Globe and Mail noted in 1947, writing about the plight of the industry. The war was blamed. Returned men were not wearing hats “as a gesture of triumph in their newly recovered liberties,” the press reported.
Before the dawn of widespread indoor plumbing, sunscreen and sunglasses, hats were something of a necessity. Ellen Lynch, a professor of accessories design at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, mentions the Three Musketeers’ wide-brimmed cavalier of the seventeenth century. Certainly it protected the face from the elements, “but it was also a way of camouflaging any diseases or bugs you might have on your head,” she says.
By the end of the 1950s, the younger generation rebuffed the idea that you needed to wear or co-ordinated outfits, Lynch says. There were new hairstyles to try out — like the bouffant — and those didn’t always work well with hats.
Even a “hatty guy” like Bing Crosby couldn’t save them. “This is a national scandal, and surely threatens the financial stability of the whole industry,” the Globe reported.
The hat industry hyped up new models — like the 1948 “coop,” which they claimed suited every man. They launched in early February, a day they called “H-Day,” in the hopes that it would sweep the male population into hat shops and counter the “alarming growth of the hatless brigade,” the Montreal Gazette reported.
The Hat Institute blamed the car. People weren’t walking or promenading downtown anymore. The world was moving to the suburbs, where people dressed informally. Coren says that postwar cars were lower and sleeker, and it was difficult to keep a hat on when you sat down.
The industry promoted studies about the health benefits of hats, trying to “indoctrinate hatless men that their habit was unhealthy,” an Iowa newspaper wrote. They even suggested “that women, deep down, don’t care for bare-headed men.”
But many women were also turning away from the accessory. Karyn Ruiz says that the women’s movement, the hairstyles, hair products, and the sexual revolution all played a role. “They wanted to be more androgynous,” she says. Madame Maud of Paris fashion house Jean Barthet told an American newspaper that the disgrace began in the 1950s: “The automobile, long weekends in the country — living less in town, women take the habit of not being refined,” she said. Maud also blamed haute couture for creating silhouettes that were striking, but perhaps a tad ridiculous for the everywoman.
By the middle of the 1950s, many of the hat factories in Danbury, Conn., had closed down. The industry had kept people employed in Danbury since the 18th century — and made many of them “physical wrecks” with mercury poisoning known as the “Danbury shakes.” (After years of fighting by unions and lawyers, Connecticut finally banned mercury in hat-making in 1941).
Danbury considered itself the hatting capital of the world, and when the world began to change for the worse, “bare-headed salesmen” were “likely to find themselves ostracized” in town, the Associated Press noted. By 1965, the city’s last hat factory was shuttered, according to the New England Historical Society.
Coren mentions a statistic he once read: More hats were sold during any one year of the Great Depression than the entire decade of the 1960s. Amid the struggle, the hat industry did its best to convince President John F. Kennedy to wear a hat.
“If only Jackie would like him in a hat, I’m sure he’d wear one,” the president of the Hat Council told a reporter, emphasizing that a hat could tell you a lot about a president: FDR wore his with a nonchalant confidence, Eisenhower rocked the homburg, and Truman gave his hats a western feel by rolling the side brim. The first lady made the pillbox hat trendy, but her husband wasn’t much of a hat man, which meant that the Secret Service men surrounding him also didn’t wear hats.
The myth that JFK didn’t wear a hat to his 1961 inauguration, triggering a decline in the hat sales, is so common (and false) that there a Snopes page dedicated to it. The president did wear a top hat for part of the day, although he did not wear it when he made his speech. Coren notes it looks two or three sizes too small in the photographs.
The hat industry never regained that early 20th-century glory, but hats of course, endure. Some people never stopped wearing them, and many people will pick one up on a whim, inspired by pop culture, a royal or the latest trend. In the New York shop, Coren says hat sales are probably back to where they were in the 1960s. “A lot of guys come in for the straw hats for sun protection.” He mentions one customer who never wore a hat, but now has skin cancer and needs to. “I say welcome, you’re never too late to start.”
In Toronto, Karyn Ruiz says the men’s summer hat business has increased in a “really big way” at Lilliput Hats, largely due to the demand for Panama hats. She says there was some naiveté about sun damage back in the early years of the hat decline, as people chose more portable options like sunglasses. “That was a bit of unfortunate information, because as we all know, people require a brim for sun protection.”
The hat seasons still exist, even if summer weather seems to last longer these days, tempting people to extend their straw hat wear. At the beginning of September, Ruiz received a call from a client wanting to know if she could wear straw to a mid-September event. Ruiz said yes, but she advised a dark colour with a tight weave that looked more like fabric — nothing too beachy. By the end of September, wearing a straw hat is “pushing it” a bit, she says. Then she laughs.
“As we speak there is a guy walking by in a straw hat,” she says. “It’s a dark navy straw.”
No one is smashing it?
“No one is smashing it,” she says. “But we’re Canadian.”
Katie Daubs is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @kdaubs
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