Hats Off to You

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   October 5, 2021

Since usually we each have only one head, it’s amazing how many different types of headgear there are, for such purposes as protection, decoration, and identification. It’s also remarkable how much you can tell about a person, in terms, for example, of their occupation, status, gender, even their beliefs.

One hat I remember was on the head of a young man who used to walk up and down Haight Street in San Francisco in 1967. The Vietnam War was raging, and he was wearing a sort of mock military uniform, with a peaked hat that made him look like some kind of high-ranking officer, only it was decorated with miniature bombs and missiles. At that time, the top American commander in Vietnam was General William Westmoreland – and this hippy character passed out cards identifying himself as “General Waste-More-Land.”

I myself devised my own type of demonstrative headpiece when, for the first and only time, I was the leader of a cause – albeit a local one. It was the movement to ban those noisy polluting machines called leaf-blowers. I happened to have a yellow version of the “hard hats” which many workers wear, and I made it my emblem of office, fixing to its sides, signs with our acronym, BLAST, in large letters, and smaller letters spelling out the message “Ban Leaf-blowers And Save our Town.” (I still have this relic of that happily successful cause and hope the local historical museum will not wait for my demise before becoming interested in acquiring it.)

Certain traditional hat styles have been so much a part of our culture as to develop into institutions. One of these is certainly what began in England as the Bowler, becoming part of the virtually required uniform of stockbrokers and civil servants. Then it crossed the Atlantic and became acculturated as the Derby, but was somehow associated with people lower on the social scale. Southern California, for several decades, hosted a wide variety of oddly designed commercial structures. One of the most notable was a restaurant (subsequently a whole chain) known as the Brown Derby, which, of course, it was built to resemble.

Another hat style with a remarkable fashion history was the straw boater, which flourished for about 40 years around the turn of the 20th century, especially in the summertime. There are images of large crowds, in places like New York’s Times Square, which appear from above to be a virtual sea of boaters.

Another very popular straw hat, of quite a different style, is the so-called Panama hat, which has always been made primarily in Ecuador, but which became associated with Panama, because that was where most visitors to Ecuador either were going or had just come from.

There are times when the very color of a hat can be of great significance. In “Westerns” of a certain era, even if you came in late to the movie, you would know that those in white hats were the good guys. But, whether white or black, if the hat were of good quality, it was made by a company founded in 1865 by John B. Stetson. The basic design, of a wide brim and tall crown, has never changed.

As with many industrial processes, before health and safety regulations were widely enforced, there was an occupational disease so common among the makers of hats that it gave rise to the well-known idiom “mad as a hatter.” The neurological symptoms, including nervousness, tremors, and dizziness, associated with hat-making were all traceable to the mercury which was extensively used in the process.

But there are many other ways in which hats, and the ways they’ve often been symbolically used, have taken root in our language. We all know what is meant by needing a place to hang your hat, or taking your hat off to some achievement, or that someone is ready to do something “at the drop of a hat,” or that a potential candidate has decided to “throw his hat into the ring.” And we know something exciting’s about to happen, when we are cautioned to “hold on to your hats” – even though most of us may no longer even have, or be wearing, hats appropriate for these gestures.

In case you wonder how I ever get ideas for a subject like this, the truth is, I sometimes need suggestions, and in this case, the idea was that of my counselor. (This of course is confidential – so keep it under your hat.)


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