Did JFK Kill the Men’s Hat at His Inauguration 60 Years Ago?

Did JFK Kill the Men’s Hat at His Inauguration 60 Years Ago?
Legend has it that JFK single-handedly killed the hat industry by being the first President not to wear a hat to his inauguration. We investigate.

While JFK did wear a hat en route to the ceremony, he removed it before addressing the crowd, prompting many in the years following to believe he was the cause of death.

It’s easy for people to blame U.S. Presidents for a lot of things, but blaming a President on the death of a male fashion staple that existed for ages? Really?

Photo of John F Kennedy wearing a hat at his inauguration
Kennedy wearing his top hat while leaving the White House en route to the Capitol

It turns out, forgoing a hat began well before Kennedy's 1961 inauguration. A 1928 New York Times article paints the picture of a rising trend among college students proudly bucking the fashion tradition, seven years before Kennedy would attend Harvard and several decades before he was elected. 

That trend continued to gain steam through and following World War II. In fact, Kennedy wasn’t responsible for the demise of the men’s hat, he was being lobbied to save it. 

It’s true he routinely went hatless before and after the election, but this was Kennedy following a trend building for years, not defining one. According to J. Bradford Bowers, Kennedy was already being pressured by hat industry groups to wear hats more often as a way of revitalizing the style among America’s men. And even though Kennedy agreed to wearing one at his inauguration, stating, “You do what's traditional,” it wasn't enough to revive the hat.

kennedy inauguration without hat

The legend that JFK killed the hat likely continued in the decades following because of the photos of a hatless Kennedy giving his address. But due diligence shows photos of the prior three presidents – Eisenhower, Truman, and Roosevelt – all delivering their inaugural addresses with their craniums on full display to the free world.

As it happened, John F. Kennedy's inauguration wasn't the death of the men's hat – it was the funeral.

Here are 4 theories as to how the hat died:

1. Kennedy was a scapegoat.

One NPR reporter, the son of a hat designer, states it WAS a president responsible for the death of the men’s hat, but it wasn’t Kennedy: It was Eisenhower.

See, Ike ushered in a new era of personal transportation with the far-reaching interstate highway system across the United States. Whereas prior to this, more men used public transportation like buses, trains, and subway cars which had high roofs that accommodated traditional headwear; the roofs of the average automobile simply did not. Slowly forcing men to forgo their decorative headdress out of practicality until they just stopped wearing them altogether.  

2. Supposedly, men who returned home from World War II had grown tired of wearing hats.

As Esquire notes, “A 1947 survey for the Hat Research Foundation (yes, a real entity) found that 19 percent of men who did not wear hats gave ‘because I had to in the army’ as the main reason.” But there may have been a more economical motive: As Bowers explains, some hat manufacturers had to raise their prices 200% during the war due to rationing of French silk.

3. 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 just 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.

4. 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 staple. Plus, since hats were once indicative of a forced fashion statement involving uniforms, people were possibly more apt to stray from wearing hats. Much like what we're currently witnessing with the loss of the necktie.

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.

Andrew Snavely

Andrew founded Primer in 2008 and brings 15+ years of men's style expertise. Known for his practical, relatable approach to style and self-development, he has been a recognized speaker at conferences and has styled work for top brands. Off-duty, he loves photography & editing, and enjoys road trips with his dog, Leela. Raised in rural Pennsylvania, educated in DC, and living in LA for nearly 20 years, Andrew's diverse experiences shape the relatable and real-world advice that has helped millions through Primer. On Instagram: @andrewsnavely and @primermagazine.