The Demise of Hats
If you traveled back in time to an American city in 1918, one of the first things you’d notice is hats. Lots and lots of hats. At any outdoor gathering there would be a veritable sea of hats! Walking along city streets men and women would be wearing hats – many of them the white straw boaters popular during that decade. In my forthcoming novel, which is set largely in 1918, you’ll notice how pervasive they are.
Hats continued to be common until the mid-twentieth century. But by the time John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as president of the United States, hats were becoming passé except for special occasions or particular purposes. What happened? Theories abound.
One reason people wore hats in the city (and in the country) was to keep the sun out of their eyes and off their faces. Hats helped them stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Hats could also keep their hair from getting mussed and maybe disguise the fact that their hair hadn’t been washed lately. While hats began as utilitarian in nature, they quickly morphed into status symbols and fashion statements.
But the need for hats waned along with increased access to indoor plumbing – people could bathe and wash their hair more often. There was also the development of modern sunglasses in the 1920s and the invention of sunscreen, thus, not as much of a need for a hat brim to block the sun. In addition, as Americans turned to automobiles, hats weren’t needed as much to protect people from the weather as when folks walked or rode trolleys to and from work.
As the necessity for hats declined, fashions changed too. President Kennedy, who had a thick head of hair, is said to have helped popularize the hatless look for men. Plus, women (and men) didn’t want to squash their hair under a hat, creating a hat-head look when they removed it. A trend toward less formality also contributed to the decline of millinery.
We still have our baseball caps, our sun visors and our big beach hats. But I doubt you’ve ever worn a hat on your way to work or to do the shopping.