Magazine article The Spectator

Use Your Head

Magazine article The Spectator

Use Your Head

Article excerpt

Why do men behave so badly nowadays? I know that the question has been asked for more than 2,500 years, but it just so happens that, this time, it is entirely apposite. Any doctor who has worked in the NHS will tell you so.

The explanation came to me a few months ago in a blinding flash of illumination: the hat. To the hat, or rather to the lack of one, is to be traced the source of all our ill-deportment. Bare heads, or heads accoutred in the wrong kind of headgear, cause our want of self-respect, and therefore our want of respect for others. What we need, therefore, is more hats: proper ones, from cloth caps to trilbies, homburgs, bowlers and toppers.

This revelation came to me in a peculiar way. I have for some years bought Victorian jewellery from a Birmingham jeweller, Mr David Johnson, and he happened to invite me one day to the opening of the new premises of the hat shop that he had inherited from his mother, a milliner for more than 60 years. Mr Johnson, developing the family tradition, had decided to branch out into men's hats.

Reflecting on hats, it suddenly occurred to me how much more difficult it was to behave badly in a proper hat, and how much easier to be polite in one. I recalled the days of my childhood during which most men wore a hat, and I remembered that my father, who was not always the most considerate of men, never failed, in a gesture of genuine politeness, to raise his hat to someone whom he knew. Indeed, the etiquette of hats was drummed into me as a child as being a stage in the taming of the natural savage.

Mr Johnson, too, remembered the age of hats, a gentler age than our own, when men would remove them to acknowledge a passing hearse. A hat, like a cane, gives dignity to a man's bearing, but at the same time affords him the opportunity to practise a little ceremonial. This ceremonial is by definition the recognition of the right of others to due consideration.

The wrong kind of headgear, however, conveys another message entirely. A baseball cap is almost incompatible with an impression of dignity or intelligence, and those whose peaks are pulled over the eyes intimidate, as they are no doubt intended to intimidate. The same is true of the hoods that young men pull over their heads, and the woollen beanies that cling to their shaven scalps. No ceremonial or recognition of others is possible with this kind of headgear.

Of course, everything depends upon cultural context. At one time Hitler wore proper hats (though he seems to have abandoned them as soon as he attained absolute power), as did Chicago gangsters and the Politburo of the Soviet Union when it assembled on top of Lenin's mausoleum. Proper hats are thus no guarantee of moral rectitude.

Yet the ethical and social significance of hats has been widely acknowledged. Kemal Atatürk forbade the fez, and Nasser the tarboosh. The point is not whether they were right to do so, but that they believed, by instinct no doubt, that what people put on their heads affected the way they behaved and thought about the world. Atatürk and Nasser were revolutionaries, and they despised their own societies as they had come down to them; they thought that nothing would change until people adopted different headgear, as Peter the Great thought that Russia would remain Muscovy until the upper classes donned European dress. …

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