Of Hats and Men

Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Jun 12, 1948

Of Hats and Men

I am glad to see that the Epson Grand Stand Association asked people who used the club stand in Derby week to wear morning dress.

In these lax days every sign of a return to the old strictness is to be welcomed, for it must be admitted that England has never been the same since men became more and more neglectful of the duty of putting on a morning coat and a top hat before setting out for the day’s work or enjoyment.

First they left off their top hats, and not long afterwards hundreds of thousands of them ceased to wear any hats at all, so that at present you can see men who ought to know better going about bareheaded like savages in the jungle.

Now it seems to me that the custom of wearing something on his head besides his hair is one of the things that distinguish man from the lower animals. The farther he rose above the level of his ape-like ancestors, the greater store he set by his headdress as evidence of his progress in civilization.

The king wore a crown, and the saint a halo; and neither of them would have been regarded with the same reverence if he had been bareheaded. The very crown owed much of his popularity to his cap-and-bells, and in our own time the cowboy became every schoolboy’s hero, largely because he wore a 10-gallon hat.

One can see proof of the importance civilized men attribute to headgear in the age-old customs of the great universities and schools which made a mortar-board part of the personality of an undergraduate, and accepted it as a decree of nature that the chief difference between an Etonian and Harrovian should be the difference between a top hat and a straw.

To wear the right hat has always been a principle with the finer type of human being. An Etonian turning up for the cricket match at Lord’s in a straw hat would, I am sure, be an object of horror to his correctly clad school-fellows.

I remember how shocked I felt myself when I saw a Catholic priest from the United States wearing a bowler. He seemed to me to be letting down the fathers of the church.

How strange it is that we should have the proverbial phrase “as mad as a hatter” seeing that the hatter has been one of the steadying forces in our civilization. I cannot think of any benefactor of the human race who has done much more to discipline us than the man who invented the top hat. Under his guidance the very blackguards began to look respectable, and to look respectable is the first step towards being respectable.

It was in an age of top hats that the novel rose to heights of genius never before known, that science revolutionized the thought of mankind, that the music-hall and musical comedy arrived at perfection, that cricket and football gained their due place in the lives and thoughts of men, and that progress became so much the normal thing that most people began to believe that it must go on for ever.

And why did this happen, except for the reason that the hatter had succeeded in taming the wild animal called man and in inspiring him with the ideal of life that should be as wonderful as the gloss of his silk hat?

Some people regard the top hat as the headgear mainly of the wealthier members of the community; but in the great Victorian era you would see it on bus drivers and drivers of hansom cabs; and even today the man who is oftenest to be seen in a top hat in London is not a rich man but a bank messenger.

If civilization has gone back in recent years, may this not be largely due to the growing indifference of the male sex to hats? It is my firm belief that, when men begin once more to take as much interest in headdress as women, civilization will begin to look up again. It is more than a coincidence that a man of such outstanding genius as Mr. Churchill has shown a greater appreciation of the hatter’s art than any other modern statesman.

And, apart from the effect of wearing a top hat on the character, it should also be remembered that it is the most comfortable covering for the head ever invented—far more comfortable, for instance, than Keir Hardie’s deer-stalker.

I, myself, if I considered only my physical comfort, would always wear a top hat. But in this bareheaded world I should feel as conspicuous as if I were wearing a tiara or a guardman’s bearskin.

A slave to convention. That is what I am. Perhaps the convention will change after Derby Day.

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