Zinsser on Friday

Hats Off

By William Zinsser | October 28, 2011


Reluctantly bowing to fashion’s timetable, I’ve put away my summer straw hat. It’s a broad-brimmed Panama that far exceeds the uses expected of a hat. Most obviously, it covers my head. It also shields my eyes from the glaring sun. But mainly it gives me an identity in an age when men regard a formal hat as an object of fear and loathing. It’s not that they don’t put anything on their heads; they are swathed in all manner of caps and other strange contrivances. But those are not hats—attire befitting a walker in a great city. Last week on the subway I saw a Wall Street-bound man whose solemn black suit matched his solemn banker’s visage. But on his head was an orange Phillies cap. That’s someone seriously out of touch with the idea of fashion as an integrated statement.

In New York my straw hat stands out in a crowd because it’s the only one in the crowd. “Yo, man! Love your hat!” bicycle messengers shout as they hurtle by. Women stop me say how “nice” I look in my hat and my jacket and tie. I thought that was the point of getting dressed to go to work: to look presentable and maybe to cheer up a few other people—a good day’s work. Women have always known that; the sidewalk is their runway. “I love a good lid,” the celebrity stylist June Ambrose told the Style section of The New York Times last week. “I like the punctuation of a hat. I like the drama.”

Last year I was hailed on Fifth Avenue by the trendy fashion blogger Mister Mort. He loved my hat from half a block away, he told me, getting out his camera. He also loved my scarf and fussed over its threads as if they were rare jewels. My hat is the lubricant of my day. Storekeepers treat me seriously because my hat notifies them that I respect the city and the customer-merchant transaction.

There was a time when all American males, rich or poor, wore a felt fedora. Depression-era photographs remind us that every husband and father standing in a breadline—the ultimate indignity for a breadwinner—was wearing a fedora. So was every man watching a major league ballgame; pictures of Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds show a sea of fedoras. Gangsters in Hollywood movies were always sumptuously hatted, the bad guys looking even better than the good guys.

The chill of autumn has sent me out to find a new winter hat to replace my disintegrating Borsalino. The secret of a jaunty hat is a generous brim, but today’s brims are so half-hearted that the quest has lost its fun. Last week I stopped at Saks Fifth Avenue and asked a clerk where I could find “men’s hats.” He gave me an odd look and a long pause. “Men’s hats?” he asked. Finally he suggested that I try the sixth floor. I didn’t know Saks even had a sixth floor. I took an elevator to that hat ghetto, gazed upon its paltry wares, and rode back down. Cross off another American institution: the hat department in your local department store.

Maybe that’s just as well. Today a man with a hat can’t even find any place to put it. I remember when every Broadway theater had a circular wire hat-holder attached to the underside of every seat. No such mercies survive. I’ve become a student of the generic coat closet in doctors’ offices and other reception areas. I hang my outer coat in the closet and then survey the so-called hat shelf. Not an inch! Crammed into every last vacuum of space are rolls of toilet paper, mountains of paper towels, stacks of computer paper, bottles of Windex, and other unloved staples of office upkeep.

I proceed to the waiting room and sit on a chair with my hat on my lap, orphans from another age.

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