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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

McCallum: Hats

On a recent stay in Manhattan I shared the elevator with an elderly woman going down for her morning walk. She wore an enormous hat decorated with flowers and filmy chiffon that matched her suit, and brought into the elevator a whiff of the nineteen-fifties that stirred childhood memories of Sundays past. When the doors opened she trotted off in her remarkable hat to meet the new day.

Americans don’t dress that way anymore. The dress-up hat, once a fashion requirement for both sexes, has been replaced by the ubiquitous baseball cap worn by all folks for all occasions and seemingly riveted to their heads at all times, even at the dinner table. There used to be an ironclad rule that men remove their hats indoors, whether it was a gent with a fedora or a farmer wearing a cap from the feed store. In today’s gender-busting world the old rules don’t apply.

Historical records show that rules for hat etiquette were precise. Women could wear hats inside churches, theaters and restaurants because they were essential style components of their outfits. Men followed a different standard and had to remove them indoors. Special rules covered elevators - public elevator, hat on. Private elevator, hat off. In presence of a woman riding same elevator, hat off, held with outside visible, never the lining. What a relief to men everywhere that they no longer must adhere to such rigid social decrees.

Except for baseball caps and winter coverings against the bitter winds, we have become a hatless society. The trend was likely born in the sixties when a youthful president with good hair chose to go without one. In his poem “Death of the Hat,” poet Billy Collins wrote, “Once every man wore a hat… Hats were the law, they went without saying. You noticed a man without a hat in a crowd… But today we go bareheaded into the winter streets, stand hatless on frozen platforms.”

With the demise of the hat go the hatrack, the derby and the doffing. No man under eighty tips his hat to a woman and when we pass the hat it’s usually a basket.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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