Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Notes on Fedoras

It was one of the great disappointments of my life: living through the internet boom in the Northern Virginia “tech corridor”, I watched as several men around me became very successful, and yet insisted on dressing as if they were at a fraternity beach party. The “Friday casual” look, so named because its adherents seem to have only a casual relationship with adulthood, became de rigueur within the Internet bubble. Most devastatingly, grown men insisted on wearing baseball caps everywhere, and none of them were baseball players. It was then that I realized the importance of a stylish hat; like a woman’s scarf, it can complete an outfit. While a bowler or a top hat convey style, and it’s hard to go wrong with a well-made Trilby, I would like to suggest that being able to pull off a fedora, without wearing a protective layer of irony, is bona fide sophistication.

In my opinion, a true fedora is distinguished by the material: if it’s not felt, it’s not a fedora. The soft felt makes the hat easy to handle and they can generally stand up to a great deal of abuse. The fedora is creased down the crown, a bit like the Homburg, but is distinguished by also being pinched in the front. It is also similar to the Trilby, but with a wider brim and the center crease. The name comes from an 1882 play by the Parisian dramatist Victorien Sardou; a character named Princess Fédora wore a similar hat. They caught on in cities by the turn of the century and were widespread in Hollywood movies by the 1940s. Of course, many of us first admired the fedora thanks to Indiana Jones’s brown model, or perhaps the numerous black and grey fedoras bobbing through film noir.

On one hand, there’s something very “urban working stiff” about fedoras. You can imagine a 40s gumshoe wearing one, scowling and hunched over his dinner in an automat, just before walking the rain-slicked streets back to his coldwater flat and making himself a highball. You could also picture Jack Lemmon wearing one in a cutting 50s comedy about life in the corporate world. It is this association with buttoned-down Eisenhower America that has largely killed off the fedora for everyday use. It is a pre-sexual revolution style and can seem a bit stuffy.

However, the fedora also hearkens back to high modernity and the idea that clothes can convey a certain dignity to the working stiffs who wear them. Modernism was largely concerned with this democratization of class and elegance: it would no longer be necessary to live on Park Avenue to dress and live like a swell. The spirit of the 60s, in which the children of the peerage democratized their own right to “slum it”, thus horrifying those Eisenhower stiffs who were less than a generation removed from poverty themselves, resulted in a sort of inversion of values: Paris Hilton dressing like a street urchin is “sophistication”, while the middle class dressing gracefully is considered “elitist”.

In the end, these fads matter not a whit; the fedora still looks sharp. Like the little black cocktail dress for women, the fedora is always in style for men (and women incidentally). And, in recent years, celebrities have been wearing fedoras with a refreshing frequency, leading some to suggest that they are making a comeback. In truth, they never left.

Of course, just as clothes convey dignity to us, we in turn should convey dignity to our clothes. A fedora should be worn with an appropriate outfit- no tee shirts and jeans, please. And, while fairly sturdy, they should be treated with more care than Indiana Jones treats his. If maintained, a fedora can stand the test of time. My Grandfather wore the same fedora for nearly fifty years. And it was always in style.

(Note: This is a shorter version of an article I'm shopping around to journals. Feel free to suggest any changes.)


Holly said...

I thought this was a great article. And not only because I'm in the process of trying to convince a friend that his life would be better with a fedora.

Rufus said...

Thanks. They're easy to spread to others. I started wearing one a little over a year ago and about half the men I know want one now. I've always liked them, and it seems like we've passed out of the ironic years, thankfully. You do see the Trillby a lot more these days, but it's just not quite the same- I actually had an argument about that fact with a thrift store owner recently! Of course, Johnny Depp wears a fedora, which is a good reason to do anything really. In fact, one company actually sells the "Johnny Depp fedora". I don't think he gets a cut.

Holly said...

I believe Brad Pitt is the current poster child for the trilby.

Rufus said...

And scalping too. There's a musician I always see wearing a trillby. I think he's in the Black Eyed Peas.

Holly said...

You are correct. But Will I. Am is not yet edging out Brad Pitt as a trend setter.