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.