Home / Opinion / Op-Ed / Hats off to those keeping headwear makers afloat

Hats off to those keeping headwear makers afloat

When I unexpectedly met up with my old college friend Ray, we decided to go inside a nearby restaurant and reminisce over a cup of coffee. Once we sat down, I noticed that he was studying me intently, perhaps attempting to assess the rigors of aging. But, no, that wasn’t his reason.

After a brief period, he observed, "You are dressed the same today as you were when you were a junior in college."

He explained that he meant no disrespect. He was just noticing that while the persona had changed with the years, the chosen clothing had not been modified. I could not deny it. I still favor the tweed jackets and blue blazers, the crewneck sweaters, the button-down shirts, the khaki pants and the cavalry twill trousers. Yes, of course, the sizes have changed, but the overall look survives.

What about style? The odd thing is that I cannot resist reading men’s fashion articles when they appear, although I am clearly not a slave to fashion. I look in the mirror occasionally as we prepare to leave home for some event, and while I think I look presentable, I know I am not fashionable. Yes, I am aware of the shifting widths of lapels and neckties and the changing configurations of shirt collars, but I am not intimidated by such revisionist policies.

Do I want to be fashionable? I don’t think so.

I’m not exposed to many publications that feature men’s fashions, but when one comes to my attention I just cannot refrain from studying the latest trends. Most of the models are pictured strolling past the camera in $2,500 raincoats and $900 sweaters. They are all tall and lean, sometimes slightly unkempt and in need of a shave. If I could afford a coat like that, I would be sure to shave before wearing it.

Lately I notice the fashionistas are stressing hats. I know the word "hat" for many persons is a term that includes headwear of all varieties, but I don’t think the category includes caps. More caps are being worn today, caps worn with aplomb by men who a generation or so ago would be wearing a real hat, a fedora, a felt hat with a brim and a stylish band encircling the crown. There may have been a feather tucked inside the band.

The men’s headwear industry supposedly took a staggering blow 50 years ago when President Kennedy disdained the wearing of hats. Remember, he had great hair, and he must have agreed with the strategy that mandated, "If you have it, flaunt it." Before then, men wore hats to events of all kinds. The unwritten rule was that a well-dressed businessman would not venture out without a hat. Among the lunch-bucket crowd at the factory gates, many hats were seen-felt hats most of the year, but occasional straws during the summer. In 1940 there were more than 150 major hat makers in the United States; today there are only 10.

My own experience with hats has been limited. When I was a young reporter, I was assigned to the police beat at headquarters, filling in for the regular reporter. I looked like the kid I was, surrounded by all those older detectives. For a more mature appearance, one afternoon I bought a hat, a brown felt, snap-brim fedora. I felt a little sheepish walking back to the press room on the second floor, but I decided it would change my image, especially if I wore it while working at the desk. No one ever said anything, but I still believe I saw a few smirks from the guys on the vice squad who were in the next office. I wore it sparingly after my assignment at headquarters ended. It reposed in the front hall closet for at least a decade before being donated to a rummage sale.

Years later I bought my last hat, a truly unique and stylish Tyrolean model, olive felt with a fancy cord encircling the crown and a decorative brush-like ornament affixed to the brim. It was not a serious hat, but it was entertaining, supposedly the type favored by alpine yodelers. I intended to keep it for the duration, but late one blustery winter afternoon I was crossing the street and it was carried aloft by a sudden, powerful gust. My last glimpse of it was as it soared away, heading toward Syracuse.

Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.

4/8/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.


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