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Forget Michelle Obama’s Dress — Just Look At That Hat

Aretha Franklin's hat
In all the hubbub and pageantry of the Inauguration, along with all the discussion of Michelle Obama’s dress (what’s it made of? What the heck IS that color anyway? Is she wearing a bulletproof vest under it? How is she staying warm?), there was actually another fashion discussion that has had far more legs than the First Lady’s dress: Aretha Franklin’s hat.

Now, I read a lot of craft, sewing and fashion blogs (actually, I read a lot of blogs, period) and no matter what the origination point of the blog: United States, the UK, Spain, Portugal..you name it…everyone wanted to discuss That Hat.

The most interesting blogs were those that are either originated by or frequented by American Black women – their response was on the order of “What’s the big deal? That’s just ‘a church lady hat’. In the black community, women of a certain age make a major effort to dress for church and that includes, no matter what the time of year or the weather, a real honest to gosh hat. A hat with an edifice complex if you will.

Some black women wrote in complaining that Aretha should not have worn a hat like that – that this is a symbol of a bygone era when the only jobs that black women could get would be as maids or cleaners and their response was to dress up on Sundays. They resented that hat. But on the whole, that grey hat with the big bow definitely had a place on the blogs – it’s a great hat on a great diva. They were made for one another.

The rest of the world marveled at it. Almost as soon as the sound of “Of Thee I sing” died away, the phones at the hat’s maker, in Detroit, were ringing off the hooks. He has now come out with a less expensive version. Miss Franklin has been his customer for years; this is a ‘one off’ item.

Something else the sight of Miss Franklin’s hat did was to spark attention by people to pointing out who else up on the podium was wearing hats: George H. W. Bush’s fur hat, for example, or Teddy Kennedy’s crumpled fedora. Dick Cheney’s big black fedora seemed to match his mood and reputation (though, I have to admit that if I had been fitting him for a hat, I would have recommended one with a smaller brim for him). In that weather on that day (27degrees F. with a wind chill factor of 8 degrees F.), wearing a hat would have seemed to have been a smart idea. Yet, most of the people up there were not wearing hats. The Obama girls were not wearing hats (although the First Grandma WAS). Neither was the new president.

Why didn’t Barack Obama wear a hat? Presidents at Inaugurations USED to wear hats. For all the blame placed at JFK’s doorstep about his supposed murder of the men’s dress hat industry, he actually wore a silk top hat (and a cutaway coat with striped trousers!) to his Inauguration.

JFK Inauguration

He only took it off to give his speech and Eisenhower took his off at the same time. JFK’s disinterest in wearing dress hats was a bit of vanity on his part; supposedly he carried one that looked a good deal like Teddy’s, crumpled, but in his hand, when he campaigned. He had a hat – that was for sure – but he felt wearing a dress hat made him look old, which I think was a common feeling among men in his generation, who had gone off to war as very young men and had achieved their adulthood in uniforms. When they came back, I think they had little interest in dressing as their fathers and grandfathers did – and of course the ‘youth quake’ of the 1950s (with more casual dress, the pompadour etc.) fed into that as well.

So, men wearing dress hats had gone into a major decline already by the time JFK took the oath and dress and culture moved that bit of men’s business dress well off the stage by the end of the 60s. The only place where men’s dress hats were still seen in abundance is the same place where women’s dress hats were seen in abundance – the black community. That is still the case, where everyone from hipsters to grandpas feel that a sharp hat is part of the uniform.

But, Barack Obama was not brought up in that community. He spent his growing up years in Hawaii (not exactly a hot bed of fedora wearing at any time) and Indonesia. By the time he reached New York and Boston, he was already an adult and had formed his vision of himself. Ball caps – yes…dress hats…no (which is too bad – I think a nice grey stingy brim fedora would look super on our president. He should have something like that handy for overseas funerals).

So, what did Aretha Franklin’s hat do? Well besides keeping her warm(and showing her good sense), it opened a window on American black culture that a lot of people overseas and in the US knew nothing about. That hat was featured in the fashion pages of many large European cities, including the London Times and the Guardian. Not exactly chump change. And it also opened the discussion about dress hats, which is frankly as far as I’m concerned, not a bad discussion to have.

The only time we have a flurry of hat wearing(other than the Kentucky Derby or the coverage in terms of Ascot), is when an Indiana Jones movie comes out. And that situation is so costumey that it really almost doesn’t merit discussion. But a good hat is worth considering. John McCain should wear a hat – so should every man who is fair, balding or both. Even for those who are not, a hat smartens up every outfit and is a definite step up from ball caps. For those who feel that they might like to take the plunge but don’t know anything or how, here’s a guide.

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TobyWollin

TobyWollin

Snarky housewife from Upstate New York. Into gardening, fiber arts, smallholder farming.

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