There is a good deal to be said about wearing a hat. And yet this humorous custom, this rich topic, of wearing a hat has been sadly neglected, as far as I can make out, by scholars, scientists, poets, composers, and other “smart” people.
Man has been variously defined, as the religious animal, and so on; but also, to the best of my knowledge and belief, he is the only animal that wears a hat. He has become so accustomed to the habit of wearing his hat that he does not feel that he is himself out of doors without it. Mr. Howells (I think it was) has told us in one of his novels of a young man who had determined upon suicide. With this intent he made a mad dash for the sea. But on his way there a sudden gust of wind blew off his hat; instinctively he turned to recover it, and this action broke the current of his ideas. With his hat he recovered his reason, and went home as alive as usual. His hat has come to mean for man much more than a protection for his head. It is for him a symbol of his manhood. You cannot more greatly insult a man than by knocking off his hat. As a sign of his reverence, his esteem, his respect, a man bares his head. Though, indeed, the contentious Mr. Chesterton somewhere argues that there is no more reason for a man’s removing his hat in the presence of ladies than for his taking off his coat and waistcoat.
In the more complex social organisms of Europe the custom of lifting the hat to other men whom one thus acknowledges as superiors is much more prevalent than in our democratic country. Though in America we remove our hats in elevators upon the entrance of ladies, a practice which is not followed in England. It was Mrs. Nickleby who indicated the extreme politeness of the noble gentlemen who showed her to her carriage by the celebrated remark that they took their hats “completely off.” We express great joy by casting our hats into the air. If I wish to show my contempt for you I will wear my hat in your house; if I wish you to clear out of my house I say: “Here’s your hat”; if I am moved to admiration for you I say: “I take off my hat to you.” I greatly enjoy seeing you run after your hat in the street, because you are thereby made excessively ridiculous. The comic Irishman of the vaudeville stage makes his character unmistakable to all by carrying his clay pipe in his hat band. The English painter, Thomas Gainsborough, gave his name to a hat. The seasoned newspaper man displays his cynical nature and complete disillusionment by wearing his hat at his desk. A hat worn tilted well back on the head indicates an open nature and a hail-fellow-well-met disposition; while a hat decidedly tilted over one eye is the sign of a hard character, and one not to be trifled with. In the literature of alcoholism it is written that a common hallucination of the inebriate is that a voice cries after him: “Where did you get that white hat?” Upon assuming office the cardinal is said to “take the hat.” When a man is conspicuously active in American political life “his hat is in the ring.” Whistler topped off his press-agent eccentricity with a funny hat. The most idiosyncratic hat at present in America is that which decorates the peak of Mr. Bliss Carman. The hat-stands in our swagger hotels make a great deal of money; I know a gentleman who affirmed that a hat which had originally cost him three dollars had cost him eighteen dollars to be got back from hat-checking stands. Cheap people evade the hat-boy.