If you are wearing hat, you’re unusual in this day and age. (What does that mean, anyway? Day and age? I’ll have to do that one another time.)
Look at a picture of any public gathering before, say, 1955, and you’ll find most men and women wearing hats. Often, the men would be wearing the exact same hat, almost as a uniform. And uniforms may have something to do with the fact that we don’t wear them today.
One theory is that the decline of hats, especially men’s hats, began after World War II. Men were forced to wear head coverings in the military, and after they go out, not wearing a hat was a freedom they wished to take advantage of. There are a couple of problems with this theory. If you look at photos of crowds in the 1930s, nearly everyone is wearing a hat. Photos of crowds in the 1940s, say at a war bond rally, show fewer people wearing hats. Also, a survey showed that while about 15% of men said they stopped wearing hats once they got out of the military, the same number said that they wear hats now after learning the habit in the military.
Another common explanation is the car. Before WW2, private automobile ownership was relatively rare. People took public transportation nearly everywhere they went. There were streetcars back then, and trains went nearly everywhere. Buses picked up the slack. And those conveyances all have one thing that cars don’t: headroom. The theory is that because hats are inconvenient in cars, they stopped being worn. Some say that headrests made wearing a hat impossible, but headrests weren’t widely available until the late 1960s.
Cars may have affected headwear in indirect ways as well. Before the personal automobile, people spent a lot more time outside. Wearing a hat was practical as it kept sun and rain off your head. Even if you took a bus, you’d have to wait for it outside, and if there was no bus, train or streetcar, you were walking.
And there’s another car connection that I haven’t seen mentioned, and that’s the rise of suburbia. Personal automobiles meant people could live outside cities, and they apparently wanted to because they moved there in droves. Along with a home, a lawn, and 2.5 kids came a more relaxed lifestyle, and the formality of hats fell by the wayside. In fact, all formality fell by the wayside. The decline of hats seems to coincide with a decline in men wearing suits in public as well.
And finally, there was John F. Kennedy. Tradition held that presidents were inaugurated while wearing a top hat, considered the literal height of formal wear for men. Kennedy had a top hat, but he often didn’t wear it. Most of the photos of Kennedy’s inauguration showed him hatless. He was a popular guy to emulate, and so the theory goes that people saw Kennedy and decided not to wear a hat to be more like him.
The timing matches up: by the mid-1960s, hat wear was seen as optional, rather than de rigueur. Many worker uniforms stopped including hats. Cabbies, milk men, nurses, and fast food workers all lost their hats in time.
And in 1973, we find another icon of fashion ditching his hat: James Bond movie ’s opening “gun barrel” scene had Roger Moore with an unprotected pate. By the way, the earliest versions of this scene weren’t Sean Connery. The actor was stuntman Bob Simmons, who could argue that he played James Bond in the first three movies. Er, with a hat.
And with the decline of hats, came the decline of “hat etiquette,” which was mostly aimed at men. The various and sometimes complex rules of doffing caps is now only standardized in the military. Religious institutions also maintain rules about headwear, some in stark contrast with others. If you’d like to start an argument, jump on a forum and suggest that woman should or should not wear a head covering in church. Bring popcorn.
So, which is the true story? Chances are they all had a role to play. Fashion is a fickle beast, and for whichever combination of reasons, wearing a hat fell out. But hats have been making a comeback. They aren’t worn to “fit in” now so much as to stand out. And when we all want to stand out, maybe we’ll start wearing hats again so that we fit in.