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Book Review: Hatless Jack – The President, the Fedora, and the History of American Style by Neil Steinberg

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John F. Kennedy was a president without precedent: the youngest man ever elected to the Oval Office, the first to be born in the twentieth century, and the first president-elect to become a father. Right from the start it was clear this was going to be a very different presidency.

And, for the most part, it was a bareheaded one. In striking contrast to his predecessors, JFK was rarely seen in any kind of headwear. It’s perhaps for this reason that Kennedy has been blamed for ending America’s longstanding love affair with the hat. But in Hatless Jack: The President, the Fedora, and the History of American Style, author and Chicago Sun-Times journalist Neil Steinberg has gone to extraordinary lengths to nail that myth.

From our viewpoint, it’s almost impossible to imagine a time when a man could not appear in public without a hat. Yet Steinberg shows that hats were once regarded not merely as accessories, but as indispensable components of a man’s wardrobe. In George Gissing’s 1888 novel, A Life’s Morning, the loss of the protagonist’s hat impels him to steal from his employer to replace it. The theft has catastrophic consequences, but he is quite prepared to risk all rather than lose public respect. Such extreme cases, says Steinberg, may have been rare, but the very existence of the story and the fact that it could never have been written in our own times, is one measure of how society has changed in little over a century.

Similarly incredible is Steinberg’s account of how civil disorder on the streets of New York was provoked merely by the sight of straw hats. What had started as a publicity stunt by the hat trade turned into a widely observed canon that straw hats could only be worn between May and mid-September. President Calvin Coolidge actually made the front page of the New York Times just because he’d taken an autumn stroll in a straw boater. For those not accompanied by the secret service, the consequences of breaking with this sartorial custom would prove more serious. Steinberg describes how riots broke out in 1922 when mobs of boys roamed the streets of New York City, attacking any man daring enough to wear a straw hat.

Demonstrating the vulnerability of hats to fickle tastes, Steinberg devotes an entire chapter to the rise and fall of the top hat. Surprisingly, it emerged from the French Revolution as a substitute for the aristocracy’s cocked hat. But within a century and a half, the topper had become quite literally old hat, a symbol of wealth and avarice, confined to weddings and state occasions. By the middle of the twentieth century, the top hat was falling out of favour even at presidential inaugurations. Franklin Roosevelt dispensed with any type of headwear for his 1945 inauguration, and although Harry Truman briefly resurrected the topper, Dwight Eisenhower came to power wearing a fedora. More surprising still, as Steinberg points out, the last president to wear a top hat at his inauguration was none other than John F. Kennedy. He may have been hatless during his famous “Ask not…” speech, but for the rest of the day a top hat was planted firmly on the presidential head.

That he chose to wear a hat at all was largely due to pressure from America’s hat makers. During the entire Kennedy presidency, they used every opportunity to badger him into wearing a hat, and the more often he appeared bareheaded, the madder the hatters became. While visiting Texas, he was presented with a Stetson, and after photographers pleaded with him to put it on, the president promised to wear it at the White House the following Monday. As things turned out, it was a Monday he was destined not to see.

In the years since his death, the myth has endured that JFK’s decision not to wear hats explains why so few men wear them today. But Kennedy wasn’t the only suspect. Steinberg reels off a list of potential culprits that include almost everything, from the movies to the motor car. And if all else failed, the finger could always be pointed at an easy target that’s been blamed for so much else – women. Once women started going hatless at the theatre and cinema, it was claimed, it was only a matter of time before men followed suit.

But, according to Steinberg, the decisive factor in the demise of the hat lies with the young generation. A hatless trend can be seen in motion as early as the 1920s when undergraduate men began to abandon the regimented fashions of their fathers. The fact that one of those college boys was John F. Kennedy adds weight to Steinberg’s assertion that, far from being a sartorial trailblazer, JFK was a dedicated follower of fashion.

Steinberg’s book is an absorbing read, full of enjoyable diversions through the highways and by-ways of hat history. A potentially pedestrian subject is rescued by a lively storytelling style and a constellation of famous names, from William Tell to William Shakespeare. There is, perhaps, too much for the reader to digest, but every one of the facts and footnotes bears witness to the author’s attention to detail. Countless hours of research are evident, not only in the body of the text but in the thirty pages of acknowledgements, notes, and bibliography.

The book’s only gaping omission is photographic proof that JFK ever wore a hat. The absence of such pictures is all the more frustrating because of Steinberg’s frequent references to their existence.

Almost half a century on, controversy still surrounds the case of the murdered president. But in the case of the disappearing hat, Neil Steinberg has finally got JFK off the hook.

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  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!