A tip of the hat to a dying accessory

May 3, 2023

Sometimes when I need a breather from the messed up zippers and the uneven hems, I visit an interesting place in the fashion department that for some reason brings me solitude. Hidden away behind the tall oak cupboards of the large sewing lab, a graveyard sits. Cardboard boxes look like caskets, stacked neatly as if it were a mausoleum. Descriptions and accession numbers run across the front of each box, resembling epitaphs. What’s on the inside of these dusty crypts you ask? Rotting away like decaying bodies in the Southern Illinois summer heat are a bunch of hats from days gone by.

I found myself paying my respects to this eerie but fascinating place at least three times a week. Though there is a Kodak picture on the front of every box, they are faded and simply do not show off the beauty that these hats were/are. I would never venture into opening one of these boxes, as these hats do not belong to me, and I would be too scared to ask permission.

At my own home, I have a very fine selection of hats, most of which I have displayed around my bedroom. I remember buying my first hat when I was 13 years old. It was an ugly little mustard yellow, late 1940s turban-esque style hat. The structure of it was cattywampus from obviously being stored improperly, which always seems to be the case with any hat. I loved this hat, and the first time I got the confidence to wear it out, my friend at the time squashed my confidence and told me it looked silly.


He was right. I was sporting a man bun and shaved sides at the time, but I was feeling my oats; it was immediately thrown out by his comment. I looked a bit silly sitting there in my small cap, but I knew that not all hats looked bad on me. Ever since that night, I have made a vow to myself that I can actually make hats work; I just have to have the right hats. The other big problem that I faced was that nobody really wears hats anymore.

In the broadway musical production of “Company,” written by the late great Stephen Sondheim, during the show stopping number “The Ladies Who Lunch,” the character Joanne makes examples of women wasting away their good years, sliding in a little bit of hat slander along the way saying, “And looking grim, ’cause they’ve been sitting choosing a hat” cheekily adding “Does anyone still wear a hat?” Though the music for this show was written in 1970 and hats had just been in fashion up to this decade, this silly song quote really encapsulates a feeling that most people feel towards hats and headwear all together.

Now, here we are a little over half a century since this show came out, and this line is still relevant to today’s fashion ideals. Does anyone still wear a hat? We all see plenty of hats on a normal basis, things like little sock toboggans and trucker styles, but nothing like the art that many different companies all over the world strove for over the centuries, especially the last two.

Hats were an incredibly important part of everyday fashions for a very long time, and we seem to only see particular types of hats for very specific occasions, like sun hats on the beach, or visors while golfing. These two examples, though, are serving a purpose categorizing them to being useful, which is why they have stood the test of time.

You see, not all hats died; that’s why the grieving is so confusing. How can one mourn a loss when it never really died? You still see farmers wearing wide brimmed hats, and in food service, hats are still expected; people in the military still wear hats as part of the uniform. None of these things are just for style; they serve purpose. Most helmets like headgear worn by miners, firefighters and construction workers are “hard hats. You see the importance of these hats because they all serve a purpose for safety and leisure.

Hats have always been an indicator of purpose. They can be used as an identifier and a communicator. An example of hats that’s sole purpose is to show a sign of identification would be sports caps, with names of different teams on them. Mostly worn by men, these hats communicate to those around them that they like watching grown men play.

Some hats or head coverings communicate that the wearer belongs to a certain faith or religion. Muslim women start wearing the hijab in their youth, and Orthodox Jewish women cannot show their hair once they are married and opt for hats or wigs. These coverings are worn for modesty and not for style, but that does not mean that they cannot be stylish, because they most certainly are beautiful.


If you go into the back closet of my grandparents’ home, you will find a plethora of random things, none of which are collecting dust because my grandmother would never allow such a thing. Above my grandparents’ off season clothes is a bunch of hat boxes, all very well cared for, neatly stacked. The contents of these boxes get switched on according to time of year and are worn quite frequently.

The hats inside are made of fine luxury materials. If you thought these hats were worn by my grandmother, you would be incorrect. My grandfather wears a hat almost every day. If you prompt him on the conversation of hats, you are sure to be listening for a good while. He wears some straw hats during the spring and summer months to keep the sun off his face, but his other hats are the ones that most people would consider a “dying” or dead fashion.

My grandfather, and most grandparents of the youth, would remember a time when a hat was almost always a must. They had different ones for different occasions, but you really didn’t need a special occasion to wear one. Hats were normalized and had been in society for a very long time, evolving from modest headwear to sculptures on the head.

Midway through the previous century, hats were fun and beautiful art like structures. My own collection is made up of mostly early 1960s hats, as there were no boundaries whatsoever, and nothing was really quite too much. The hats become more bombastic to keep up with, with the architectural hairstyles of the day. Going into the 1970s, we saw hats sort of start to just fade away.

I wanted to know why hats decided to retire after centuries of being way more than common. What killed the hat? Well, what didn’t kill the hat?

My first thought about the downfall of headwear fashions of the time was that by the 1960s, clothing was more marketed to youthful consumers. Clothing had been a little more sexually liberated than before. By the next decade, hats were a symbol of a bygone era. Kids didn’t want to wear what their parents were wearing and moved past them completely.

The next thing that feels a bit more important, but probably didn’t contribute that much, is that in the 1970s, the Catholic church no longer required head coverings in sanctuary. It used to be that women were supposed to wear some sort of chapel veil or any modest hat. With this new lower level of expectancy, this could have contributed to the outdatedness of hats.

My third thought is that the world has simply evolved too fast to have room for something that serves no purpose. I mean, think about it, policemen don’t even wear hats anymore. The only people we still see actively wearing fashionable hats are Kentucky Derby goers and the British royal family, and they only started doing that in support of the millinery trade.

Though I love a good hat, I understand to a degree why they went out of style. There is one final factor on why they are not worn anymore, and that is because they are annoying and always have been. So I buy hats and I sometimes wear them, but in reality, I have my own little hat catacombs at home, waiting for the next time I decide to make hats a thing again.


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