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Posted on 30 Oct, 2015 in The Godfather: Peter Corris | 3 comments

The Godfather: Peter Corris on the hat

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peternewpicAn agent never puts on his hat and goes home. – Raymond Chandler

If you look at a photograph of a street scene in any Australian city taken in, say, the 1940s and 1950s, you will notice that the great majority of the adults, men and women, are wearing hats. A similar photograph taken now would show hat wearers in the minority.

The 1960s saw the demise of the hat as a required article of clothing. My father wore a hat to work until the last few years of his life. He died in 1967. I noticed this difference in his outfitting but did not ask him why he’d given up the hat. We weren’t close and, anyway, you didn’t ask your father personal questions in the Melbourne working class of that time.

At Melbourne High School a cap was compulsory when travelling to and from school and to be reported as not wearing one attracted a penalty – detention or yard-cleaning duty. I left school at the end of 1959 and, from then to now, have never worn headgear except a cap on very bright days, when playing tennis or golf, and a panama hat once for a best-dressed men’s competition.

I watch quite a few films from the 1940s and 50s and most of the men and women wear hats. The men take theirs off as soon as they go inside and have to recover them as they leave – it appears as automatic actions. My impression is that women kept their hats on when inside for some time (they were often secured by clasps and pins) and only removed them when totally relaxed.

Why was it that the hat phased out, in Western countries at least, during the 1960s?

In novels from Victorian times to the 1950s, what type of hat a man wore, its condition, whether well-brushed or not, and the manner in which it was worn, were important markers of social status and character. The same was true later in screenplays – an important indicator of a comic character was his hat and what he did with it. Whether this was true of women in books and films I’m not sure.

By the 1960s considerations of class and status in clothing had broken down. A millionaire might wear Levi’s as a labourer would, and neither would be likely to wear a hat. This was, of course, a part of the general movement towards more casual dress. Hairstyles changed radically. If you grew your hair to your shoulders as I and millions of others did, why hide your crowning glory under a hat?

Women abandoned corsets, wore bikinis and mini-skirts and men eschewed waistcoats and hats. The hatstand joined the walking stick in the dusty corners of second-hand furniture stores and the occupations of hat-making and selling suffered a major blow.

(These observations apply only to city dwellers. Country people, more aware of and subject to the damaging effects of sunlight, have retained the hat as a necessary item.)

3 Comments

  1. As a child one of my greatest secret pleasures was to explore my mother’s hat box. It lived on top of my mother’s wardrobe, had that special shape for taking hats, and was made of shiny black leather. Richly thick blue silk lined the inside and opening it was like entering Alladin’s cave. I would carefully lift out the hats one at a time and try them in front of mother’s dressing table mirror. My favourites were the ones with veils that covered the top half of the face to the eyes and I couldn’t wait to grow up to wear them. But as Peter observes the ’60’s put paid to the hat tradition as the ethos of liberation extended rapidly to dress codes. And enthusiastically embraced the advent of panty hose, quickly followed by the mini skirt, which finally liberated women from the horrors of suspender belts and corsets.

  2. Peter, have you forgotten the great and successful fight at Melbourne High in 1958 to have caps replaced for 6th formers by grey felt hats with puggarees in the school colours? Some of us wanted boaters to go with our black blazers; but we were never going to win that one! In the 1958/9 Christmas holidays I sold hats – the biggest commission was on Stetsons – in the Leviathan Men’s store. I was trained there by the president of the Master Hatters’ Association(!)on how to steam and press hats into shape and present them to customers. I must have been among the last to be so trained, apart from staff in specialist shops in later years.

  3. Over the last twenty-five years, of course, the peaked cap worn by males either normally or back to front (like Lleyton Hewitt) has been very common in Australia. Many wear these caps indoors as well as outside, day and night, so one must presume that in some cases they would have to be surgically removed.

    In the 1990s when I was conducting an undergraduate history tutorial class I asked a couple of young men to remove their caps and they did. When I told my wife about this on returning home she said, ‘You didn’t’ almost as if it was me who was being ill-mannered.

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