Fashionable Men in Foolish Hats

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A part from a schoolboy cap I had between the ages of 7 and 14, I can only think of one hat I have ever possessed.

It was an object with earflaps. I bought it when I lived in Boston, where the winter air is for the penguins. I wore it a very few times, and recall only once test-releasing the flaps while waiting for a bus in Brookline. Not until recently have I admitted to myself why this made me decide to discard the hat forever. It was because I suspected that the hat made me look like a penguin. I thought, gosh, I'd rather have deep-frozen ears.

You may put this down to vanity.

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Me, I put it down to some deeply masculine strain of wanting to appear normal. I've worn hats in amateur theatricals - but that didn't bother me because I was being someone else. I have worn a hired gray topper at a wedding, but then all the other males were similarly hatted.

But whenever I have tried on a hat in a shop, convincing myself momentarily that perhaps, after all, it would be OK to own at least one of some sober sort (a trilby like the one my dad wore, maybe, or a yuppie cloth cap - but definitely not a baseball cap), the immediate laughter of all witnesses has succeeded in dissuading me from the purchase. Perhaps it is my suspicion of the absurdity of all hats that is primary and the fact that they make me look absurd secondary.

The truth is that men's hats are peculiar items. Clearly, they have little practical use. Umbrellas are far more effective at keeping rain off you, for example. Even hats with guttering overflow rapidly.

In his fascinating book ``Hats: Five Centuries of Status, Style, and Glamour,'' Colin McDowell devotes a telling chapter to the etiquette and status of hats. Talking about the 1890s he remarks: ``What women wore was a question of fashion, but men's clothes were dictated by convention.'' He is surely right. It is a strange thing that if a woman sets a new fashion, however ridiculous, she will be afforded admiration, while a trend-setting male invites accusations of shameless exhibitionism.

When in the 1790s a London hatter named John Hetherington first wore his ``tall shiny black hat he caused a riot,'' McDowell writes. ``Laughter turned to anger and he was pelted with whatever the crowd could lay its hands on. He survived and so did his plush hat - which became the headwear of authority for the next century.''

Only the fact that absolutely every 19th-century male of a certain class wore a black top hat from dawn to midnight every day can explain the fact that absolutely every 19th-century male of a certain class wore a black top hat.... Actually, it is inexplicable. The top hat may make a short man think he looks more imposingly tall; but inarguably the ubiquitously power-hatted gents of Victoria's reign were living out the tale of the Emperor's New Clothes. In their top hats they looked totally and top-heavily daft ... only nobody liked to say so.

When you come to think of it, what other hat but a top hat could Lewis Carroll's Mad Hatter possibly have worn? It's surprising the March Hare didn't pelt it with jam tarts.

* The third and last part, another look at men's hats, will run on Friday.

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