Posted by Susan Doll on August 8, 2011
Last week’s post on memorable movie hats for women was fun and enlightening but time consuming because of the laborious process of researching examples. Women’s hats tend to be unique variations on specific styles or one-of-a-kind haute couture designs. To find examples, I wracked my brain to recall films, stars, or female characters that might lead to colorful, meaningful, or dynamic hats, and then I searched for film stills from those movies. Once I found examples, I discerned what style it was and then interpreted its use in the film. Not the most efficient approach to the topic, and I knew many good examples of hats would fall through the cracks. Fortunately, my readers picked up the slack and mentioned some terrific examples, which prompted me to add bits of hat lore and history in the comments section.
Men’s hats in the movies proved much easier to research. Movie hats for male characters or stars tend to be slight variations of well-known styles. Researching specific styles of hats inevitably led to examples from movies. Also, male head gear has inspired more investigation into hat lore and history than women’s hats; historically speaking, it has been men who interacted, networked, and negotiated in the public sphere. Therefore, men’s hats, rather than women’s, indicated status. The down side to men’s hats is that they are not nearly so creative, colorful, or visually striking as women’s.
BOWLERS. The most recognizable hat in cinema history is arguably Charlie Chaplin’s bowler, also called a derby. The bowler was invented by Thomas and William Bowler in England around 1850 as an occupational hat for gamekeepers and hunters, but soon the upper middle class began wearing it for sports. Within a decade it had spread to the city, where it was widely adopted by the middle and lower-middle classes as well as by the working class. The bowler became very significant at the turn of the 20th century because of the music halls. The halls were attended by all classes, including the occasional aristocrat, so when performers looked out over the audiences, class distinctions were less obvious. The bowler was one of the symbols of the so-called democratization of the music halls, though each class wore the hat for different reasons. Factory workers wore bowlers as part of their Sunday best so they could blend in with the other classes and be “at large” in the world; members of the lower middle class wore it because it was part of their occupational dress; upper middle class men, or the bourgeoisie, wore expensive versions of the bowler.
According to Fred Miller Robinson in The Man in the Bowler Hat, music hall comedians based their comic characters on the various classes who frequented the halls. For example, they might play a working class bumpkin by wearing ill-fitting, loud, or mismatched clothes topped off by a bowler; they liked to skewer the middle classes by exaggerating their preference for finery; and they poked fun at factory workers who donned bowlers to act like would-be gentlemen. Though in his autobiography, Chaplin claimed that he threw his famous costume together at Keystone after Mack Sennett called on him to appear in a comedy short, the details of the costume suggest otherwise, particularly given Chaplin’s extensive experience in the English music halls.
Chaplin’s costume at the time meant something different to English audiences than to Americans, according to Robinson. To the English, the costume from the waist up (the bowler, vest, and waistcoat) suggested the Little Tramp’s futile desire to rise up the social ladder, or to blur class boundaries. The Little Tramp was akin to England’s Little Fellow, another term for “commoner.” To American audiences, the Little Tramp was more like a hobo, who is beyond class because he is completely disenfranchised from society. However, the hobo archetype can sometimes have a positive connotation to Americans because he also represents freedom from the rigid manners and rules of society.
After Chaplin’s enormous success in Hollywood, the bowler hat was used by other silent comedians, including Fatty Arbuckle, Ford Sterling, and Laurel and Hardy. By this time, the English music hall connection to the bowler had faded. Laurel and Hardy made their first film using bowlers, Hats Off, in 1927, supposedly at the suggestion of director Leo McCarey. In the case of Laurel and Hardy, the bowlers add a touch of formality to their costumes that is in contrast to the boys’ childishness, or their penchant for creating chaos. Laurel and Hardy made good comic business of their bowlers: The hats either stuck tightly to their heads no matter the bedlam, or they blew off furiously with the tiniest of breezes.
FEDORAS. The second most famous hat in cinema history is likely Indiana Jones’s fedora. The back story of how Jones came by the hat was depicted in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. A rogue adventurer places the hat on the head of an adolescent Indy because he recognizes the kid as a kindred spirit, not only anointing him with an identity but also making the hat an icon signifying romantic adventure. Beyond the perimeters of the story, the image of Indy and his fedora channels all the characters in cinema history who have ever donned a fedora, from the gangsters of the 1930s to the noir detectives of the 1940s to the hard-bitten cops of the 1950s.
The fedora actually got its name from an 1882 French play titled Fedora, which featured a female protagonist named Princess Fedora Romazova, who was played by actress Sarah Bernhardt in the 1889 American stage adaptation. In the 1890s, the fedora was introduced as a female fashion accessory for middle- and upper-class women, a trend that Greta Garbo almost revived in the 1930s with her slouchy fedora.
COWBOY HATS. Before John B. Stetson began manufacturing a hat he called the Boss of the Plains for the cattlemen in the post-Civil War era, men who went out West to seek their fortunes tended to wear the hat styles they had always worn. As a matter of fact, old photos of Wild West figures show that many wore English bowlers, including infamous lawmen such as Bat Masterson. As the history of the Wild West disappeared behind the legends and lore spun by dime novels, vaudeville, plays, and Hollywood movies, the Stetson, or “cowboy hat,” was mythologized into the hat that tamed the West. The cowboy hat, which boasts an authentic American heritage, still symbolizes the essence of the spirit of the West.
The cowboy hat became an important indicator of character in the movies, beginning with the simplistic distinction of black hats for outlaws and white hats for good guys. Beyond that, cowboy-hat lore can be quite detailed and complicated. The most noticeable cowboy hats were worn by stars of the b-westerns that were aimed at rural or young audiences. The cowboys in these films were larger than life, and their costumes, horses, and hats were easily identifiable to their loyal fans. Tom Mix, Hollywood’s first western superstar, preferred fancy costumes with all the trimmings and ostentatious accessories to authentic western gear. His huge cowboy hat, with the deep crown, is an indicator of his penchant for the flamboyant because of its two off-center Montana slopes. Mix’s hat had the distinction of being the largest cowboy hat ever made up to that date. In, the next generation of b-movie cowboy stars, Roy Rogers stepped into Tom Mix’s boots with his flashy costumes adorned with piping and decoration. Even Trigger wore tricked-out saddles and bridles. Rogers’s “skypiece” was a Stetson with modified RCA creases on both sides of the front of the crown, then topped off with his own invention—a double telescope crease on the top. In contrast, Rogers’s friendly rival, Gene Autry, wore a hat with a single crease down the middle and a slight crease on each side of the crown. Less showy than Rogers, Autry won over his audiences with a down-home style and warm personality, which is reflected in his overlarge but plain hat.
Hat styles in westerns can suggest generational differences, an important piece of information. An older western figure may be an original settler, such as a rancher who fought the Indians to clear the land for cattle and then became powerful and wealthy from his successful ranch. Because of his proprietary attitude regarding the frontier and his localized power, the rancher can be an antagonist to second generation western heroes, whose function is to protect recent settlers or other civilized folks newly arrived in the West. Patriarchal ranchers often wear large crowned cowboy hats with multiple dents, which were popular in silent westerns; young, strapping western heroes tend to wear small crowned hats with medium brims and one dent on top, like the westerners in A-budget films of the Golden Age. While that is only a guideline, not a rule, I did notice that it held true for Cowboys & Aliens, with Harrison Ford wearing a four-dent hat called the Yakima (after Yakima Canutt) and Daniel Craig wearing the smaller-style cowboy hat.
JACK SPARROW’S THREE-CORNERED PIRATE HAT. In the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, much attention is paid to Jack’s hat. He often endures great danger or goes to great lengths to retrieve it when it is missing. Much like Indiana Jones and his fedora, the hat is central to Jack’s sense of identity. Director Gore Verbinski and the scriptwriters are toying with mythmaking in the first three films (just pretend the fourth POTC was never made), and they reference familiar and famous movie archetypes throughout the series. The pirate characters portrayed by Errol Flynn are paid hommage to in POTC: The Curse of the Black Pearl, which makes sense, but other characters or genres are also alluded to, including western heroes and classic adventurers in POTC: At World’s End. Like the cowboy-hero archetype of westerns and the globe-trotting adventurer of the classic-era action adventure movie, Jack Sparrow walks the fine line between civilization and wilderness, belonging to both and beholden to neither. He symbolizes the freedom to pursue the next horizon, unchained by the constraints of society or civilization, represented by the “corporate” East India Tea Company. As rendered by Verbinski, the pirate character represents American ideals of freedom and independence, and Jack’s hat is a motif that symbolizes those ideals–much like the song in the trilogy, “Yo-ho, A Pirate’s Life for Me.”
STRAW BOATERS. The boater first appeared in the 1820s as a hat favored by working class men. In 1870, a machine for sewing straw was invented, launching a new version of the boater, which became extremely popular for informal occasions among men and women of all social classes. This new look in hat coincided with the emergence of a less-rigid class structure. The hat’s popularity peaked from about 1890 to 1930. Its fall from grace may have been due to its association with vaudeville and music hall performers on two continents, college students, and other less-than-serious types. Harold Lloyd regularly wore a straw boater as part of his costume in his silent comedies, and the hat’s informality, plus its “classless” distinction, makes it a perfect fit for Lloyd’s youthful, energetic success seeker, who is not defined by any social class.
PORK PIE HATS. Named because of its resemblance to a pork pie, this flat-crowned hat with the small brim is most associated with Buster Keaton. Keaton’s version was flatter than the average pork pie, because the comedian made his own hats. The pork pie first appeared in the 19th century as a woman’s hat but quickly became known as a “man about town” style in England. Not as much information exists about the pork pie as other styles, so I hesitate to interpret Keaton’s character in relationship to this hat. I did find a couple of interesting tidbits, however. Picking up on the comic connection to Keaton, who enjoyed something of a comeback in the 1960s, several cartoon characters of that decade donned pork pies, including Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear. The pork pie hat is also a favorite among jazz musicians, while blues artists prefer the fedora. (Hence, the fedoras of the Blues Brothers.)
Space and time prevent me from offering more examples of memorable movie hats, but I am sure I omitted some fun and entertaining examples. Feel free to chime in with your favorites. The bibliography below is relevant for last week’s and this week’s articles.
Barthes, Roland, “The Diseases of Costume,” in Critical Essays (1964), trans. Richard Howard, Northwestern University Press, 1972.
Bender, Texas Bix. Hats and the Cowboys Who Wear Them. Gibb Smith Pub., 2009.
Robinson, Fred Miller, The Man in the Bowler Hat : His History and Iconography, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
Wilcox, R. Turner. The Mode in Hats and Headdress. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
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