Who Killed Men’s Hats? Think Of A Three Letter Word Beginning With ‘I’ : Krulwich Wonders… : NPR

Krulwich Wonders…

A hundred years ago — and that’s when this picture was taken, in 1912 — men didn’t leave home without a hat. Boys wore caps. This is a socialist political rally in Union Square in Manhattan. There may be a bare head or two in this crowd, but I think those heads are women’s.

Socialists in Union Square, New York, May 1912

The Library of Congress/via flickr

Here’s another rally, Union Square again. This time it’s an Occupy Wall Street demonstration. A hundred years have passed. Same place. Same kind of crowd. But this time: hardly a hat.

An Occupy Wall Street gathering in Union Square, Nov. 17, 2011.

Allison Joyce/Getty Images

Flip back one more time. We’re back, I think, in Union Square, with Emma Goldman arriving by car. She’s another socialist (this isn’t an essay about lefties, it’s about hats) and there she is, the only woman in a sea of men wearing a sea of hats.

So what happened? Why did guys stop wearing headgear in midcentury America?


The turning point, most people say, was John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Before Kennedy, all presidents wore top hats on their first day at work. Kennedy brought one, but hardly ever put it on. Fashionistas say Kennedy, one of our most charismatic presidents, made hats un-happen. And, chronologically speaking, after JFK, guys everywhere, even balding ones like astronaut John Glenn, went topless.

Astronaut John Glenn, left, and President John F. Kennedy, center, inspect the Friendship 7 Mercury capsule on Feb. 23, 1962, which Glenn rode in orbit. At right is Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.


Astronaut John Glenn, left, and President John F. Kennedy, center, inspect the Friendship 7 Mercury capsule on Feb. 23, 1962, which Glenn rode in orbit. At right is Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.

But I am the son of a hat designer. And my father, Allen S. Krulwich, had a different explanation. The president who de-hatted America, he thought, was Dwight Eisenhower.

Here’s my dad’s logic.

In the 1950s — and this was one of Ike’s grand accomplishments — he built a vast highway system across America. Interstates went up everywhere. Cities extended roads, turnpikes, highways, and suburbs appeared around every major city. People, instead of taking a bus, a tram, a train to work, could hop into their new Chevy or Ford and drive.

Before Eisenhower, many more people used public transportation. After Eisenhower, they used a car. That, my father thinks, created the critical Head-To-Roof Difference.

A person of average height standing in a bus, tram or subway car has, roughly, three feet between the top of his head and the roof.

Man on train

Robert Krulwich/NPR

If he chooses to wear a hat, (which depending on the hat can extend his height 3 to 18 inches), there is still lots of room above him. So he keeps his hat on.

Now imagine the same person, sitting in the drivers’ seat of his car. The Head-To-Roof distance is much narrower, so narrow that to stay comfortable, a man would feel it proper to remove his hat.

Man in car

Robert Krulwich/NPR

Until cars became the dominant mode of personal transport, there was no architectural reason to take your hat off between home and office. With Dwight Eisenhower’s interstate highway system came cars, and cars made hats inconvenient, and for the first time men, crunched by the low ceilings in their automobiles, experimented with hat-removal, and got to like it.

Yes, there may have been other motivations; Kennedy had great hair; so did the Beatles, fashion was changing wildly at the time, but if we are looking for a president to blame — and my father, whose business suffered in the 1960s and 1970s — wanted to blame someone, I’m going to stand with him: I blame Ike, because Ike built the highways that created the cars that lowered the roofs that crushed the hats that changed the fashion that ruined the business that supported the Krulwiches.



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Stuart Knoles (Calen)

Stuart Knoles (Calen) wrote:

Head clearance in cars was, at first, quite a bit; and then became less and less. Did this cause the hat to go, or, vice-versa? Men did at first, wear hats when they drove. My dad had a favorite entertaining quip when traffic slowed: that up ahead there was an old man driving with a hat on. And we would look to see if this theory was correct, and squealed with delight when seeing a true example.

Funny too now, is how men wearing hats tend keep them on indoors, whereas, back when hats were worn, that was something only women should do.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012 6:44:03 AM

Aaron Rosier (aaron_rosier)

Aaron Rosier (aaron_rosier) wrote:

do you have any idea how much a nice hat costs?

the average american man can hardly afford to employee a fashionable set of shirts, pants, and shoes these days.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012 4:02:20 AM

Laura Minnick (Slug_Queen)

Laura Minnick (Slug_Queen) wrote:

Almost, but not quite. it’s not the head clearance- it’s the head rests, which appeared at about the same time. You cannot keep a hat on when driving a car with a head rest. First time you lean back a bit- pop! And your hat’s off. I wear a hat to church every Sunday, and this is a big problem for me.

Monday, May 07, 2012 11:21:53 PM

Isaac Zaetz (IsaacZaetz)

Isaac Zaetz (IsaacZaetz) wrote:

one goat one goat

Monday, May 07, 2012 10:30:47 PM

mustafa cev (cevikbasm)

mustafa cev (cevikbasm) wrote:

This comment has been removed because it did not meet the NPR.org Community Discussion Rules.

Monday, May 07, 2012 9:12:15 PM

JE Sargent-Smith (Conch)

JE Sargent-Smith (Conch) wrote:

To make matters worse, they started designing cars with headrests, so the hat brim kept hitting the headrest and getting in the way.

Monday, May 07, 2012 8:24:32 PM

Willy Roentgen (X-Ray2)

Willy Roentgen (X-Ray2) wrote:

If the headroom is the critical factor, why haven’t caps replaced the taller hats? The theory does not seem to stand up as logical reason.

Monday, May 07, 2012 9:02:05 AM

Sofia Poullada (Hafiza)

Sofia Poullada (Hafiza) wrote:

Strange that the arrival of both CHEAP and highly effective SHAMPOO is not mentioned here. Shampoo that worked & didn’t destroy/dry out your hair and was widely available to buy everywhere happened AFTER WW II. Don’t forget that all “proper” women ALSO wore hats or scarfs until the 1950’s.

Monday, May 07, 2012 2:03:30 AM

Alfred Kriman (ansid)

Alfred Kriman (ansid) wrote:

Short version: Edward VIII.

Long version:
My grandfather was a furrier in Chile, though he went to the US for a few years when the Great Depression knocked the bottom out of the business worldwide. He told my father that the signal event that foreshadowed disaster for the hat trade was Edward VIII being seen in public without a hat. That must have been in 1936; John Betjeman saw fit to mention his hatless highness in a poem about the death (in 1936) of King George V. Certainly in the 1930’s, many younger government men were seen hatless in public, but perhaps for royalty it was still somewhat daring. (Hatless *outdoors*, of course. Now many men wear caps indoors, though many others still recall when that was universally understood as an offense.)

(Appropriately, Edward VIII was never crowned; as everyone knows, he abdicated after less than a year and was made Duke of Windsor.)

(Furriers were involved with the hat trade at least partly because felt is manufactured from animal hair, and partly, I suppose, because it’s a related retail item.)

Monday, May 07, 2012 1:22:35 AM

Robert Willardbee (Rob_Will)

Robert Willardbee (Rob_Will) wrote:

I always blamed the hippies!

I’ve been doing a fair amount of travel and one of the places that I found some of the original styles of hats being made was in Buenos Aires. There was one shop that insisted upon using all the original techniques, equipment and had that same lost vibe. There would be no way a typical tourist could find this place, but it is on a unique tour we found: http://landingpadba.com/the-man-tour-buenos-aires/

I am guessing there may be some people here that could be interested in this same tour! High quality fedoras, bowlers, everything. A must do if you are ever in Argentina.

Sunday, May 06, 2012 10:28:04 PM

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