The Man Who Killed the Hat

It’s long been a thing of legend, that John F. Kennedy single-handedly killed the tradition of men wearing hats, but is there any truth to the story? We dive in head first to find out.

Fans of AMC’s “Mad Men” tune in each week for the drama surrounding Don Draper and his blurry past (and present, depending on what he’s drinking). However, aside from the romantic liaisons and office dealings, “Mad Men” fans also tune in to reminisce about the ‘60s, sometimes more specifically about the fashion, when women wore dresses and men wore hats. And if “Mad Men” producer Matthew Weiner and company are true to life when it comes to history, Don Draper will be wearing his signature fedora less and less as the decade continues.

Legend has it that JFK single-handedly killed the hat industry by being the first President not to wear a hat to his inauguration. While JFK did wear a hat en route to the ceremony, he removed it before addressing the crowd. The hat industry started to decline shortly after Kennedy’s promotion to the Oval Office, prompting many to believe he was the cause of death.

It’s easy for people to blame U.S. Presidents for the unemployment rate and lack of attention to natural disasters and oil spills, but blaming a President on the death of a male fashion staple? Really?

Kennedy wearing hat at inauguration

Just like Oliver Stone’s film “JFK,” which discussed the controversy surrounding Kennedy’s assassination (“Back. . .and to the left. . .back. . .and to the left”), let’s examine the possible ways the hat may have been assassinated itself (but not necessarily at Kennedy’s hands).

Here are 5 theories as to how the hat died:

1. Supposedly, men who returned home from World War II had grown tired of wearing hats (specifically helmets during the war). When Kennedy bucked the trend and didn’t wear a hat to his inauguration speech, this may have given men the go-ahead to forego wearing hats altogether.

2. Clark Gable apparently killed the undershirt industry after he bared his chest in “It Happened One Night”. No one has ever proven this, but it has been accepted as fact. Yet, the film was released during the Great Depression, when many men were probably trying to save money and, thus, not buying undershirts anymore. In the matter of JFK and the hat, the President could have been just a victim of circumstance like Gable. Hats had been on the decline in sales and popularity for many years.

3. The car may have run over the hat. Before the 1940s, cars were not as streamlined, with air flow being a problem, causing men to wear hats to protect themselves. However, after vehicles started to become more streamlined and enclosed, men no longer needed hats to protect themselves.

4. According to Neil Steinberg’s book Hatless Jack: the President, the Fedora, and the History of American Style, hats declined due to nonconformity. During the 1960s, youth ruled, and conformity was the enemy. So the decline in hats could have been just a natural progression in the decade, with Kennedy simply one of many refusing to give in to societal expectations. Plus, in terms of youth, young people didn’t wear hats. Wearing a hat was seen as something “old men” did.

5. The hat may have just died from natural causes. In the past, wearing a hat was seen as formal and proper. After all, there were places for people to “hat check” their hair wear at hotels, and restaurants. However, perhaps time had just reached a point where the lines were blurred. Hats were no longer intuitive of class; they were simply a fashion statement. Plus, since hats were once indicative of a forced fashion statement involving uniforms, people were possibly more apt to stray from wearing hats.

Like most urban legends, we can never know for sure what caused men to stop wearing hats. It’s doubtful had Kennedy worn a hat while addressing the inauguration audience that men would still be wearing hats today. Yet, it’s an interesting world to think about. A world where everyone looks like Don Draper. Doesn’t sound so bad.

http://www.thefedoralounge.com/showthread.php?t=21391
http://blog.villagehatshop.com/2008/08/obama_jfk_neckt.html
http://www.snopes.com/movies/actors/gable1.asp
http://www.snopes.com/history/american/jfkhat.asp
http://www.timesdaily.com/article/20100813/NEWS/100819934?Title=The-fall-and-resurrection-of-the-hat

Megan McLachlan currently resides in the Pittsburgh area where she freelance writes, drinks coffee, and obsesses over popular culture. She was an English major, but doesn't think she wasted her life. Yet. Her blog is megoblog.com.

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  • Andrew

    I think one of the larger factors… was the automobile.. but not for the reasons stated above…

    As car’s became more compact (in the late 60′s with muscle cars… and early 70′s. with compact cars).. you could not wear a hat while driving without mashing it against the roof.

    With the continued interior shrinkage of the automobile… and bucket seats in particular… there was no longer a place to store the hat while driving.. (as opposed to the 50′s sedan with the large bench seat)

    So… having to take it off.. and no place to lay it while driving… made men less likely to wear a hat when they planned on driving..

    Since we started driving “Everywhere”… this added to the abandonment of the hat in general… then with less demand… hat racks and hat check stations disappeared.

    It’s a shame.. but today… hats are not practical unless you drive a larger automobile….. and if you carpool or let others drive… you have no control over the size of the car.

    I love hats… and i own an SUV…. but if i’m not the one driving.. i tend to leave it at home… (or if dressed casual and in inclement weather… i wear a stocking cap.)

    Just my thoughts.

    Love the site.

    Andrew

  • http://www.primermagazine.com Andrew @ Primer

    Andrew, Great comment! It’s definitely an interesting idea, and one I wouldn’t discount. I find the same idea to be true even for smaller things like sunglasses — no place to put ‘em, especially with passengers. It’s annoying that I have to put my messenger bag in the trunk or back seat every day, so I could see how men would gradually give up wearing a hat at all just because it’s easier.

    Thanks for reading!

  • Radcliffe

    Sorry Megan. No President has worn a hat while giving his inaugural address. It’s probably due to the fact that the speech immediately follows the taking of the oath and removing the hat is a sign of respect. Add to that the fact that most Presidents through Truman took the oath on a bible which they then kissed. There’s no way you can bend down to kiss the bible with a top hat on your head!

  • FullHouse
  • anonymous

    teachers! fucking educators put boys in detention for not taking them off in class!

  • John

    The Californiaization (sic) of American culture was yet another factor in the decline of the men’s hat IMHO. Prior to 1950, New York ruled men’s fashions, as it continued to rule women’s fashion. However as more Americans moved to the Sunbelt and began to dress less formally, many men decided to “do away” with the hat.

    Irony: JFK was an easterner and a Bostonian. His aversion to hats was, by all accounts, due to his desire to not be associated with Irish pols, famous for their hats. He was a New Politician, wanted a New Look. In this he was (more irony) closer to a “Sunbelter” like Ronald Reagan than many of his still traditional (in terms of fashion) eastern friends and associates.

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  • Brian_Urban

    I agree with “Radcliffe” that the point people have made was not that JFK delivered his inaugural address bare-headed; I’m not sure that any President has ever delivered his inaugural address wearing a hat. But I don’t buy Radcliffe’s notions that this has anything to do with the address’s following the oath of office, or the custom of kissing the Bible after taking the oath.

    I think that if you look back at old photographs of politicians and others addressing outdoor crowds, you will almost invariably see that the speaker has doffed his hat to deliver the address — whether or not it’s an inaugural address. Photos of Lincoln at Gettysburg, for example, show almost all men in the audience, even apart from soldiers, wearing hats . . . but Lincoln and the other dignitaries on the speakers’ platform are bare-headed. There’s a lot I don’t know about the old-time etiquette of hat-wearing, but it does seem that there were occasions when one was at the center of attention, and the normal obligation of wearing a hat was reversed, requiring the man to remove his hat in those circumstances.

    Anyhow, the point most people have made about JFK’s hat-wearing at his inauguration was that, even apart from his address, while JFK had a top hat with him during the day, he frequently neglected to don it, at points were a man would conventionally have worn a hat. JFK’s going bare-headed so often, so this story goes, killed the men’s hat.

    As a general principle, I’m highly skeptical of “magic bullet” theories of history, along this line — the belief that some isolated, idiosyncratic event momentously triggers a social sea-change — and I think it’s pretty well established that the notion, “JFK killed the men’s hat,” is an urban legend. Likewise, I don’t find persuasive the theory that reduced headroom in modern cars killed off the hat. Women have to find some place to put their purses when they drive or ride in a car; this hasn’t made the purse disappear. If men still wanted to wear hats, they’d find someplace to put them when they got in cars.

    Instead, in this case, I think Steinberg has the better of the argument: (1) a trend toward nonconformity undermined the belief that one was obliged to wear a hat, and (2) there wasn’t a countervailing affirmation in fashion that the hat was an attractive element of men’s wear. In these circumstances, the hat rapidly lost the allegiance of younger wearers, and thus evaporated the incentive for most men to spend a good amount of money on something that they had come to see as not merely superfluous, but old-fashioned.

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