You'd think that between managing the Cuban missile crisis, waging the Cold War and the beginnings of the Vietnam conflict, and supporting the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, President Kennedy had enough to worry about during his administration. But the preceding list omits an important conflict from this era: the campaign waged against the White House by the hat industry. President Kennedy hated wearing hats, and those who made them would not take this affront lying down. J.F.K tried to placate the hat industry; he even wore a top hat to his inaugural. Still, the hatters weren't going to accept what they perceived as a grave threat to their business's livelihood -- the most recognizable and prominent man in America going around hatless! Author Neil Steinberg chronicles their elaborate campaign to make the president wear a hat in Hatless Jack.
Hatless Jack: The President, the Fedora, and the History of an American Style
Available from Powell's Books.
Those who remember George H.W. Bush's refusal to eat broccoli, despite entreaties from the vegetable industry, might initially think of the whole Kennedy-hatters conflict as analogous, but apparently hatters are far more sturdy opponents than broccoli growers. As Steinberg details extensively, they proved to be stubborn, tenacious, crafty and even downright brazen adversaries for Kennedy. He was sent innumerable hats by companies. When this tactic didn't work, they enlisted prominent businessmen and politicians to "press" hats on the president. Even astronaut John Glenn, perhaps as a bit of mischief, offered Kennedy an astronaut's helmet to try on when they visited after the Friendship 7 flight.
Why all of the fuss over whether J.F.K. wore a hat or not? Was he really that powerful a symbol to American men that they would go hatless in droves just because the president declined to wear a Fedora? Steinberg strikes on a two-part thesis regarding the whole incident. Yes, Kennedy was a tremendous fashion symbol; his wardrobe choices were written up in GQ and Esquire, and both publications microscopically scrutinized his stylistic predilections. Of course the hatters were nervous when they saw that many men of Kennedy's generation were similarly going hatless, whether it was in emulation of the president or for a host of other reasons: expense, style, fear of baldness, comfort, et cetera.
However, the trend toward men going hatless preceded Kennedy; Steinberg provides a cultural history of American attire, focusing on head wear, in order to provide a context for the heated debate over a hat's place on the chief executive's head during the sixties. While this might seem like a rather rarefied area of inquiry, this overview actually encapsulates a fair amount of topical terrain. For much of the Twentieth century, the hat was not just an optional adornment; it projected a sense of identity, class, and even awareness of the calendar year (read the chapter on the riots and brawls caused by wearing straw hats after Labor Day to see a truly different perspective on the role of a hat). Today, we still associate certain hats with careers -- a policeman's cap or military headgear, for example -- but before the Second World War, this type of identification extended to all American men in all walks of life. Steinberg depicts hatless men in America in the twenties being literally hissed at in the street! The author points out a possible reason for the change in attitude in the period after the Second World War. Many men returning from service in the armed forces viewed headgear as part of their military uniform, and they were eager to shed the trappings of years of indoctrinated conformity. Thus, the hatters were looking to J.F.K. to reclaim a segment of their clientele that they, in actuality, had already lost. Given that his successors were L.B.J. and Nixon, neither of whom was a fashion plate to say the least, the days of the compulsory hat for the "Greatest Generation" were lost. Sadly, the domestic manufacture of hats ground to a halt not long afterwards. In fact, the big controversy just a couple of years after Kennedy's passing was not whether a man wore a hat, but how long his hair was; Beatlemania struck the next blow in the style wars.
Steinberg doesn't confine his musings to twentieth century America. He also provides insights on male hat customs the world over from a number of eras; in the main, he eschews discussing the myriad complexities of women's hats. One common thread (pardon the pun) binds these tales: no matter what the hatters think, men (and women) throughout history don't like it when leaders tell them what to wear on their heads; in some instances, coups d'etat have resulted! Rather, the compulsory wearing of a hat seems to be more the product of peer pressure than anything else. Once enough men got tired of buying and maintaining the many hats "required" of them by societal mores at the turn of the century, the fedora went the way of the dodo. In our contemporary era, hats are an altogether more personal choice. As men become "follicly challenged", they may to turn to hats to keep warm (or to hide their baldness). Hats with sports insignias and logos are all the rage. You can wear a straw hat to protect yourself from the sun, no matter what the month, and not fear an angry mob of hat smashers. Thus, given our remove from the circumstances surrounding Hatless Jack, Steinberg's history of the haberdasher is actually far more informative than its seemingly focused subject. It provides an interesting, often entertaining, depiction of American men's stylistic evolution.
-- Christian Carey
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