25 March 2012


I was talking to Tom, the General Manager at work, a year ago or more. We were talking about hats, and specifically the size of our heads.  I think I overheard him saying he took a 7-5/8, which is essentially huge.  

Turns out that 7-5/8 is my size, too.  We were commiserating in our huge-headedness there for a bit.

Next thing I know, Tom has brought in a hat for me.  I was astonished and delighted.  He said it had been just sitting on the shelf of his closet for years, and that he really never wore it and that he wanted to give it a new home.

Wow.  Thank you, I said.

I have been wearing the hat when I can ever since.  It is a brown wool felt fedora with a beige cloth band.

I wore the hat with the front brim down and up in the back, as any decent fedora-wearer should.  A fedora worn this way is known as a "snap-brim hat." This is the universally cool way, epitomized by Humphrey Bogart in any number of movies:


Or how about Indiana Jones in our own time?  Hat salesmen will tell you that the Harrison Ford character almost single-headedly brought back the fashion of men wearing hats in the 1980s:


Indy's is a wider-brimmed fedora than Bogart's was.  But both men wear the front brim turned down, shading the eyes. Ford's character always wears the back brim down as well, while Bogie's characters sometimes have it turned up.

Really, is there any other decent way to wear such a hat, one might wonder?  

Let's consider the alternative:  with the brim turned up in the front, and then, to match, up all around.  (Brim up in front and down in back is just too weird to even contemplate.  I cannot think of even a single role-model sporting that bizarre, eccentric style.)

OK, so.  Brim turned up all around.  

This look always seems like a joke to me.  A man wearing a hat this way cannot be taken seriously. You'd put a hat on with the brim turned up and immediately go into a drunk routine,  at a party.  This look suggests, on the mild end of the spectrum, the hero's sidekick, and as we get more judgmental about him, a figure of fun, a drunk, or a hick, a rube.  In short, a yokel.

Why do I feel this way about such a slight change in sartorial choice?  What is it about a hat worn this way that evokes such negative stereotypes?

First, let's look at some role models.

One thinks of the bumbling, genial Uncle Billy character in It's a Wonderful Life, portrayed by Thomas Mitchell:

Or how about Otis Campbell, town drunk of Mayberry?:


Hmmm, who else?  Ed Norton (the spiritual forbear of Kramer on Seinfeld) from The Honeymooners, is an iconic brim-upper:


So what do these three men have in common, other than hat style? While one might be tempted to answer "alcohol," I'm not sure that Ed Norton could be accused of overindulgence, as the other two clearly could.  Ed was  a lovable, if dimwitted, hero's sidekick character portrayed by an obviously intelligent actor.  All three could certainly be called comic characters.  

But am I just thinking of negative stereotypes to fit my thesis?  Where are the really positive guys who wear their hats this way?  Ummm. . . .

Look Ma!  Two at one shot!  (Interesting chronology here:  that is November 10, 1944, just days after the re-election of FDR, seen here with his Vice President-elect, Harry S. Truman.)  Two political luminaries, neither of whom look embarrassed in the least to be wearing their hats brim-up! The word "yokel" does not apply here.

Also note that this picture is contemporaneous with the Bogart cool brim-down look.

Why does the brim-up thing still look yokelly to me?  Does it to you?

I asked this question of my wife many years ago.  She was an amazing theater maven, with a hand in many aspects of producing local plays.  She designed and made costumes, among other things, and spent lots of time studying tomes on costume and fashion history.

Her answer was interesting, a deeply philosophical one about how a hat brim down was guarding or shielding the face, while the brim up was open, revealing too much and leaving the wearer completely vulnerable.  She took it all the way back to helmets worn by knights:  visor down is a show of strength, while the visor up, revealing the face, might only be seen in death.  Something like that, anyway.

In recent years there is a lot of cool attached to up-brimmage, though mostly of pork pie hats with narrow brims.  The first one I thought of here was Tom Waits:

I mean, is there anyone cooler than Tom Waits, I ask you?

Though often seen with a narrower-brimmed hat, his headwear here could be a fedora.  And Waits looks like his utterly cool self with that brim turned up.

The power of coolness in this image of Waits begins to erode my thesis.  What am I talking about anyway, ultimately?  And why am I talking about it?

Well, I'm not the only one to discuss the merits of brims up or brims down.  I found this internet forum, The Fedora Lounge by name, where a collection of seemingly older hat-wearing  gents talk about this very issue.

The reason I am writing about it at all is that, with all these thoughts about hat looks swirling in my mind, some weeks ago I started wearing my gift fedora with the brim up all around, just to see.  I thought of it as a kind of challenge to the world and to my friends.  Secretly, I was begging someone to comment on the style, to call it uncool, to say I looked like a yokel.

For weeks no one said a word.  Then one day I came into the lunch room wearing the hat this way, and Tom, who gave me the hat in the first place, reached up for it with some words about how this hat had a particular snap.  It was clear that he wanted and just expected to see it with the brim down.  I was so happy.  It gave me a chance to launch into an abbreviated version of my spiel about the brim-up = yokel thing.

Sue also commented on it, but mostly after hearing my spiel about things Ed Norton and Uncle Billy.  Ever since, when I appear at her cozy partitioned nook to say goodbye after a work day, brim up, she addresses me as "Eddie".  Or at least I feel the yokel image floating between our smiles.   When I ask her if one of the connotations of this new sartorial look might be "cool," she replies in the negative.

And yet I persist. What started as a joke has now become a habit and maybe a style.  I put that brim back and proudly walk arm-in-arm with the likes of sewer worker Ed Norton and lovable Uncle Billy on one side, and on the other, Harry S. Truman and Tom Waits.

Not bad company.