Hats off to hats!

Often, it's just a fashion statement. But sometimes our headgear reflects our environment, our profession - or even if we're old enough to marry.

When the weather warms up this spring, will you swap your knitted hat or earmuffs for a baseball cap? Many people have a favorite type of hat they wear each season. They choose hats that shade their eyes, protect their heads, or tell people what they do - or which professional sports team they support. Cowboys wear cowboy hats. Chefs are known by their tall white chefs' hats. Here are some other hats with traditions of their own.

The hat that won the West

As a boy in the 1840s, John Stetson worked in his family's hatmaking shop in New Jersey. They made felt hats in many styles. As a young man, Stetson decided to travel west to look for gold in Colorado. The derbies and other small-brimmed hats worn by men in the gold fields didn't really protect them from sun, wind, and rain. So Stetson designed a new hat with a wide brim and tall crown. Someone who saw his hat offered to buy it from him. He realized that he might make more money selling hats than looking for gold.

In 1865 Stetson moved to Philadelphia and began making his new-style "cowboy" hat, which he named the Boss of the Plains. It soon became the most popular hat west of the Mississippi River. It was tough and durable and protected the wearer's head and neck. It was also soft enough to serve as a pillow when sleeping on the prairie at night, and its deep crown made it useful in carrying water to a horse or cow as well. (You've heard of a "10-gallon hat," right?) Stetson designed other styles of his cowboy hat as its popularity grew.

His hats have been worn not just by cowboys but also by United States presidents, marines, US Forest Service employees, Texas Rangers, and even the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The Boss of the Plains is still being manufactured in Missouri.

Conventioneer delight

The straw "boater" was popular with both men and women from the 1890s through the 1920s. It got its name because many young men wore it while rowing or punting (moving a boat with a tall stick that reaches to the bottom of the lake or river), often with a young lady companion. It was also called a skimmer, or sailor hat, and was part of the uniform of some British sailors. Boaters are made of stems that are braided and sewn.

Boaters were very popular at picnics and on the tennis court. Their popularity waned after the 1920s, when they were replaced by the Panama hat (made of palm leaves - in Ecuador, incidentally). Boaters haven't entirely disappeared, though. They are still part of student uniforms in some British schools. Barbershop quartets often wear them. And if you watched either of the national political conventions in the US last year, you probably saw plenty of straw hats. They have become a traditional part of political activities.

A hat with an identity crisis

In 1850, Englishman William Bowler introduced a hat that became traditional headgear for white-collar workers, bankers, and even clowns in England and later in America. It was made of felt, a fabric created by compressing wool and fur. The bowler hat, as it was called, was also popular at the Derby horse race at Epsom Downs in Epsom, England. It was also worn by the Earl of Derby. As its popularity grew in America it was commonly known as a derby here.

About a century ago, the bowler was introduced to Peru by British travelers and businessmen. It quickly became popular and was worn by both men and women. In some parts of Peru today, it is now traditional for a woman to begin wearing a bowler when she becomes old enough to marry.

What nation invented berets? Wrong.

Berets can be traced back to military figures in ancient Greece, but in more modern times they are associated with the Basque people. Basques live in the Pyrenees Mountains on the border between France and Spain. A similar hat, Scotland's tam, is traditionally made the same way, from a single piece of fabric with no seam or binding. Because many Basques were sailors or fishermen, this style of hat might have been shared with Scottish seafarers. Berets are often made of felt or knitted fabric.

We often think of French people wearing berets, but these hats are not common in France today. Berets are often associated with a special group. They are popular with elite military units (the Green Berets, for example) and are part of some military uniforms in the United States, Britain, Spain, Thailand, Sweden, and Canada. A special Olympic beret became very popular during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Traditions stay traditional

Early firefighters in America were volunteers, and wore whatever hats they chose. Some headgear worked better than others at protecting firefighters from falling or burning objects. In 1836, New York City volunteer firefighter H.T. Gratacap came up with a successful fire-helmet design that is still being used today. Called the New Yorker, it was made of thick leather and had a long brim in the back to keep water from running down a firefighter's neck. Two brothers named Cairns added a badge to the front of the helmet. The helmet design, the badge, and even to some extent the leather material have become traditions, even as helmet materials have become generally more high-tech over the years.

Today it is common to have an eagle's head on the front of a fire helmet or an insignia with an eight-pointed star. The Cairns & Brothers company continued to make and improve helmets, adding an aluminum helmet in the 1920s. Later helmets were made of fiberglass and Kevlar. But a government-approved New Yorker-style leather fire helmet is still popular among firefighters who enjoy the old traditions (cost: about $300).

You can buy an aluminized cover to protect your protective hat.

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