Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Those with an interest in photographic history will know that hat wearing as a dominant feature of social scenes faded from view some time in the 1960’s. With that shift in fashion, once essential items such as hat stands, hat hooks and hat racks required less consideration for architects and builders, than toilet roll holders and thermostat control units currently do. Prior to the 1960’s, gatherings of men (particularly outdoors) could often be glimpsed through fields of Panamas, Fedoras and Straw boaters. One of the striking observations is the uniformity of hat styles that can be seen in photos of such gatherings.

Women of course had the luxury of expending small fortunes on these identity forming (or was it concealing?) garments and social hat wearing is now generally reduced to casual wear for protection from the sun or when one really wants to be noticed at the races. The last vestiges of indoor hat wearing has been conserved by religious groups often in out of the way places with little pressure to change. The spine of fundamentalism resident in such sects as The Salvation Army, the Brethren and The Taliban has given these hats, heads to sit upon and tresses to pin them through, as a counter-measure to the winds of “bare-headonism” that have blown and gusted for nigh on half a century. Hat wearing at the beginning of the 21st century is chiefly a matter for firemen, construction workers, farmers, bishops and monarchs who need either protection from falling objects including ultra-violet light, or who have need to project their badges of office to the world at large. Hats are also adopted by those of both sexes who’s hair has fallen off their heads through disease or sheer forgetfulness. But why did hats get blown off heads in the period when Dylan was singing ‘How many times can a man turn his head”?

The answer to that question is of course blowing in the wind, and Dylan’s generation expressed it perfectly when they let the hair on their heads grow longer and stronger to the point that hats popped off with every breeze. In fact it was fashions of hair that put the boot into the statistics of unemployed hat-makers, and underpinning this trend, like all trends, there were reasons why hair grew and hats flew. During this period to “let ones hair down” became something of a cliché expressing antipathy towards ones parents, and more particularly against the oppressive values that shoe-horned the previous generation through war and austerity. With peace handed to them on a gold edged plate, the post-war generation thanked those who gave this gift, with all the petulance of a pampered adolescent. Personally I blame the parents – but what did they do wrong?

I preface the answer by mentioning that in the circumstances we would do no better, and probably much worse – the circumstances being huge relief that the war was over, that the horrors of death and destruction had had their season and the discipline adhering all levels of society was no longer essential to prevent collapse of that society. This has been commented upon by many examining the fashion explosion of the 60’s and the reasons that the value sets of the baby boomer progeny were so different from their parents. An immediate consequence of the post-war shift in values was a relaxation of the demands of authority over the individual, and the boomers were able to inhale deeply of the oxygen of freedom and self-expression absolutely denied their parents by circumstance. Thus was the teenager born to the sounds of Elvis and others in the delivery room of the 50’s.

Concurrent with this freedom, the material benefits of wartime research were re-mobilised to service the general public (instead of destroying it), and luxuries such as indoor sanitation, better housing, personal mobility and increased leisure became part of the post-war largess. These technologies attended a brave new world in which science was king, engineering was admiral and capitalism was Marshall in the field. The new technologies required energy to function and resources were both abundant and cheap, permitting droves of manual labourers to leave their fields of toil in the country and enter factories of production in growing cities. Hot water was plumbed into every house and people washed more often including their heads - and even in winter.

Hats which had previously had the multiple functions of protecting heads, projecting identity, and adorning or concealing the state of their wearers’ heads and hair became generally superfluous (to the detriment of bald people) and wearing hair longer and more facially visible was a natural reaction against the cult of disciplinarianism deeply ingrained during the war years. The freedom from authority, to see and to be seen was like a draught of fresh air on the scalp of the newly bare-headed and so it has generally persisted with few exceptions, those who don’t want to be recognized such as secret agents and gangland hoodies being a case in point. Those people in third world countries who trudge daily through rice paddies in all weathers of course have yet to make the transition to bare-headonism and it is likely that they never will.

What is more likely is that we, the bare-heads, will gradually re-adopt hats as an essential accoutrement, as our circumstances slide away from the prosperity and self-confidence of the post war era. We will probably find that hats are an affordable practical response to the twin challenges of climate change and fossil fuel depletion. Hot water use is likely to decrease in direct proportion to the cost of heating, making us all smellier and unkempt. Air-conditioning usage will go the same way and we will learn to live with open windows and if we can afford them, fly-screens. Personal mobility will decrease and we will re-learn the subtle arts of crowding onto public transport and losing our personal space and identities as we merge with the hundreds of armpits and sweltering heads also on board.

For the above reasons we can expect to see hats make a come-back -and probably re-introduced with retro-hype and eco-marketing. And as we don our new found head-gear with our reduced identities and smart new conformities, some may even draw strength together in religious communities. Faith will once again become the asset it always was. Even so the rejoinder to Dylan’s song will still be able to be heard wafting gently in the wind.

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