An article by Adrian Wooldridge in the Economist’s 1843 magazine credits the 20th century decline in hat-wearing to two main causes: soldiers returning from World War Two bucking formality, and the influence of our President John “hatless Jack” Fitzgerald Kennedy. Both explanations are part of the story, to be sure, but they are far from sufficient for explaining why men stopped wearing hats. Moreover, these are the kind of easy historical explanations that rely on popularly understood historical references without considering deeper subtle influences on change over time.
It may soon be conventional wisdom, if it is not already, that the reason American men stopped wearing hats was because they adored their leader. Indeed, the JFK angle in the Wooldridge pieces echoes the view of NPR’s Robert Krulwich in a popular article from 2012. But this view should give us pause. Could the example of a hatless president really bring about the death of the hat? How could we even measure such an influence? What about other concomitant influences in American society? How many hippies went hatless because JFK did? Why do we have to default to the political “great man” theory of history when so many other explanations are possible?
In my book, Creative Historical Thinking (Routledge, 2018), I devote a chapter to exploring at least ten possible explanations for why men stopped wearing hats.
These are as follows:
1). Increasing informality/ casualness of society
2). Breakdown of hierarchy (think top hat, bowler, farmer hat)
3). Soldiers returning from WWII (as Wooldridge says above).
4). Transportation change (increased time in automobiles instead of outdoors)
5). Increased time inside of buildings (more white collar jobs)
6). Invention of sunglasses as an alternative
7). Decline of trade jobs with specific hats
8). Improvements in hygiene (more showers) meant less hiding one’s hair
9). JFK/ James Dean/ other fashion icons and trends
10). New hairstyles (attractiveness signaled by styling hair)
The problem with these explanations is that none of them on their own is sufficient for explaining the change, yet put all together, they seem to over-explain the process. Any and all of them could be responsible for the decline of hat-wearing, but so could other explanations. Wooldridge and Krulwich need to be careful in putting forward such singular explanations, but historians need to keep their explanations limited.
I won’t (and for copyright reasons, technically can’t) repost the chapter here, so if you want to know more, you have to get the book. But, I will quote a part of my conclusion:
“The best theses are usually complex enough to balance many factors of change, and yet simple enough to be readily understood. It doesn’t help, for example, if a historian says there are an infinite number of reasons why change came about, or that a situation is too complex to arrive at any thesis. Some historians make the mistake of presenting no thesis at all, and say instead that the events were ‘complicated.’ This is nothing short of admitting defeat. An historian who cannot explain change is no historian at all.”