Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Hats on, Hats Off

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Hats on, Hats Off

Article excerpt

A certain amount of eccentricity in dress is allowed, even expected, in artists, poets and assorted bohemians. Their hats tend to be particularly eccentric. 'Funny, isn't it,' Mr Bolder observed to his friend Fred Willis, the hatter, 'that people who paint pictures think it's proper that they should act barmy? Hats like horses wear in summer.'1 A floppy felt or straw, when Victorian manhood was ramrod-stiffin top hats or bowlers, was unconventional, but hardly threatening. The upper-middle- class Forsytes, however, in John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga, worry about June Forsyte's fiancé, architect Philip Bosinney. He pays a duty call on her aunts 'in a softgrey hat-not even a new one-a dusty thing with a shapeless crown. "So extraordinary, my dear, so odd!" Aunt Hester had tried to shoo it offa chair, taking it for a strange disreputable cat.'2

While etiquette manuals outlined its codified rules, novels and autobiographies record the lived experience of hat-wearing as well as the adventures of those who break the rules. Fictional writing and memoirs are closer to what Raymond Williams refers to as 'structures of feeling'; that is, 'meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt'. As Williams suggests, the relation between these structures of feeling and what we find in the 'formal and systematic' rule-books is 'in practice variable'.3 We constantly question our own and each other's assumptions about the rules and their implications. The Forsytes, 'seeking the significant trifle which embodies the whole,' Galsworthy explains, 'fastened by intuition on this hat ... each had asked "Come now, should I have paid that visit in that hat" and each had answered "No!'''4

Hats as the Forsytes once understood them are no longer part of a generally accepted code: we no longer wear hats as a matter of course, and their former importance is difficult to appreciate. But the fact that they were once so central to daily life makes these 'significant trifles', a key to the 'whole', a way into the life of the past. In this article I therefore draw on written and visual material, beginning around 1800 (the period in which hats burgeoned in size and significance) but focusing on the last half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the heyday of the hat-and of the Forsytes. Commentators usually agree that decline set in around 1965 when hairstyles trumped hats in importance, but in fact hats were already losing ground in the 1930s-the point at which The Forsyte Saga concludes. The Forsytes and their anxieties about headgear then form a frame for my narrative.

Manners, morals and codes of conduct, Clive Aslet observes, have been 'privatised' and modern man 'has never been more on his own'.5 Contradictions occur in this process, since when everyone wants to show individuality there is a tendency for everyone to use much the same things to display that individuality. As an expression of difference baseball caps don't really work. Traditions survive in some contexts: hats are still worn for weddings, race meetings and contacts with royalty, but otherwise anything or nothing goes. Occupying a dramatic, isolated position among items of dress, the hat was once associated with a unique code of conduct: to wear one indicated superiority, removing it, a sign of deference. The French still salute success with the exclamation 'Chapeau!', doffing an imaginary hat.

For the Forsytes, members of the expanding middle classes of nineteenth- century Europe, dress was the clearest sign of shifts in the social order; change and improvement was their credo, but also a cause of anxiety. The Realist novel, developing in parallel with this class-who formed its main readership-scrutinised conduct and appearance. Hats therefore punctuate novels, signalling compliance with custom and fashion, but more often-because it was more interesting-non- compliance: the parameters of proper headgear were defined by the improper. Because of its association with status and respect this hat-etiquette was an especially male concern. …

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