Hats: the way to do it

We all know that 50 years ago no man would be seen without his hat, while most men these days go about bareheaded. What happened?

Apart from at the odd wedding or funeral, the only other time I've ever seen them are in “rock” movies where the wardrobe department invariably hands one to the slightly Gothy keyboard player.

These gestures should be smart and fleeting, never exaggerated or clumsy.

In spite of this, hats are always trying to stage a revival - whether a Mad Men-inspired referencing of a more elegant age or something to keep out the extremes of our weather. But thanks to generations of hat-free life something has been lost.

According to the ABC of Men’s Fashion, written by the English tailor Hardy Amies, hats fell out of favour in the early Sixties because menswear was being increasingly created by younger men who, as the Sixties got swingier, wanted to keep out the squares. The modern look was for modern, young man. “The first signs of age in a man appear in a receding hairline,” Amies says. “Thus to go hatless is to display defiantly one’s youth.” So to not wear a hat became the thing to do and as the Sixties turned into the Seventies and hair grew longer and longer still, the hat faded from view.

Getting a hat is one thing - but do you know what to do with it?

Most of my hats are in the kids' dressing-up drawer - the genuine Moroccan tarboush, the Helmut Schmidt hat that the genuine Helmut Schmidt gave my father, the battered and misshapen straw trilby - and I never wear one in winter and stupidly rarely in summer. But (the perils of hat-head aside) I do like the idea of a hat; I’m just, like many of us, all at sea. 

Maybe it’s the cold but hats seemed to be everywhere yesterday. On the way to work I almost dropped my coffee when I saw someone in a topper. Fairly nondescriptly dressed young man. In A Top Hat. In the 21st century.

Then the missus, at the zoo with children, had someone politely raise his hat to her. She was, she said, quite impressed. Though found it a bit quaint. 

Before the Sixties, men had been wearing hats forever and - people being people - a vast array of customs, conventions, rules and taboos had sprung up about what sort of hats to wear and what to do with them when you’ve got them on. Now, when a man reaches for a hat, whether for the racing, or bracing for the weather, he is often at a loss. So here are some ideas on the hat to choose - and what to do with it when its on your head.   

Amies' book gives some good tips on the sorts of hats to pick - and who should wear them:


Boater "Better left to elegant fishmongers."
Bowler "The only truly smart headgear for a man - but it can only be worn in London or at a race meeting. It should never be worn abroad, never by foreigners and Americans who do so should be fined."
Cap "Change the p to d and you have 'cad'."
Grey Top Hats "Incorrect in winter. Acceptable with a hired morning suit." 
Straw hat "The ideal hat for warm weather. Straw should be used more extensively. Then men would wear hats in summer."

Trilbies are, he says, the most popular hat. And he also has some useful tips on colour - match the coat not the suit - and brims. “In general a round or big-faced man cannot wear as narrow a brim as can a man with a small face,” he says. “But you must just try everything on for effect.”

So you've got the right hat, now what do you do with it? The Ritz Book of Customs and Manners from 1991 (though it seems a lot older) has good advice on how to behave when out and about, in a section cutely titled “Little Courtesies to Ladies”. “When meeting a lady of his acquaintance either in the street or at a public gathering such as a race meeting it is not necessary for a gentleman to remove his hat but he touches it as a mark of respect.” Simple. Touch the hat. But where?

John Morgan in his Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners suggests taking hats off in lifts, in the presence of royalty or the dead, in a church but not in a synagogue. As for greetings, he says that when meeting somebody or passing them on the street “it is traditional for men to touch the brim of their hat”. When a man meets a woman he “can also raise his hat gently”. If he ends up talking to her, he should take his hat off. Morgan goes on, with probably the most important bit of all. “These gestures,” he says, “should be smart and fleeting, never exaggerated or clumsy.”

That seems the nub of it. Hats are classy - so act accordingly. A little tap on the brim - no leering - and take it off when you should. Simple.

Are you a hat-wearer? What sort do you like and do you know what to do with it?