Regardless of opinions to the contrary, the calendar and the crabgrass have signaled the onset of another spring, and as Alfred Lord Tennyson profoundly stated, “In the spring, this young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love ... and hats (or love of hats).” OK, I admit to adding the hat part, but I’m sure if old Al had proofread his poem (or possessed even a rudimentary level of fashion acumen), he may have tagged those same words to the end of the stanza before submission to the publisher.
Yep, I’ve had a serious hat thing goin’ on (long before the plethora of snap brim wearing, faux Bohemian troubadour singer-songwriters of recent years). I’m not talking about those raggedy billed, poorly embroidered with images of moose or mallards, semi adjustable, plastic snap strapped, camouflaged promotional baseball caps one would receive after spending several hundred dollars on seed corn or insurance. Though I will admit, for keeping the sun out of your eyes at a ballgame, protecting your forehead from severe contact burns when working on hot truck exhausts, swatting flies at a cookout, or flattening the bill out and wearing askew while performing horrible, drunken rap karaoke (is there such a thing as good rap karaoke?), the aforementioned head gear would be hard to beat.
I’m theorizing the hat seed was planted ages ago, when sifting through a shoebox filled with old black and white photos, I concluded that everyone wore hats prior to 1950: clusters of men in a street scene, all sporting fancy lids of some sort; packed stands at a sporting event, where straw boaters and derbies prominently made themselves known; fishermen and lawyers and cowboys and jazz musicians and roustabouts, each of them covering their gourds with an unlimited variety of cranial accessories.
That seed was cultivated several years back, while casually strolling along a side street in beautiful downtown Madison, Wis. Window shopping and people watching, all the while distractedly gnawing on a fresh baked loaf of pull apart cheesy garlic bread, I happened upon a real old fashioned haberdashery. Tucked amongst several nondescript storefronts, its inviting character lured me in, and upon crossing the threshold, I was immediately overwhelmed by walls lined with floor to ceiling shelves ... filled with row upon row of fashionable noggin toppers. Perusing the many styles, I reached for a hand woven, Panamanian straw fedora; reminiscent of the one Chi Chi Rodriguez wore on the album cover of DEVO’s debut recording. Cautiously placing it on my head (cocked at a slight angle for Sinatra like swank) I stepped to the mirror. There, over my shoulder, I caught a glimpse of the ponytail wearing proprietor admiring my choice.
“Wow man”, he stated in the measured tones of a stoned Cheech and Chong character. “You, my friend, have impeccable taste in fashionable headwear.”
Glancing back at my reflection, I realized he was correct. This was not some practiced sales pitch he offered up, but an honest, heartfelt critique of my choice.
Hats do indeed make the man. They silently proclaim to the world what sort of person you are. Would Winston Churchill’s speeches have been as forceful had he worn a multi colored propeller-topped beanie? I can’t imagine John Wayne in a sombrero or Tom Landry ever striding the sidelines in a leather pub cap (though I can confidently state that Clint Eastwood would still be intimidating even in one of those silly hand-clapping novelty baseball caps).
So if you glimpse a middle aged, funky hat wearing guy exuding an aura of Thelonious Monk like coolness, chances are it’ll be me.
Chuck Mason, a self-described opinionated wiseguy, resides in Princeton. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.