The JFK Hat Thesis Lives on

The idea that American men stopped wearing hats because they followed the example of their fearless leader, John F. Kennedy, is one of those historical myths that is almost certainly wrong but seldom challenged.

In an article in Insider Higher Ed, Matt Reed asks “Will the pandemic do to ties what JFK did to hats?” Reed says that JFK made “going hatless socially acceptable for men.” This view was has been around since at least the mid 1990s, but was popularized by NPR’s Robert Krulwich and by Neil Steinberg’s book, Hatless Jack. Curiously, Snopes.com has an article from back in 2007 that goes some way in rebutting this myth. Snopes shows that JFK wore a hat at his inauguration and that hatlessness was already common for men in public by the early 1960s.

But cultural historians have not written peer-reviewed work on the topic.

My chapter titled “‘Why Men Stopped Wearing Hats”‘ and Other Important Historical Questions” in my book Creative Historical Thinking (Routledge) provides a more thorough explanation of the debate about the demise of hat-wearing among men. I suggest at least 10 possible theses for why hat-wearing declined. Historians need to recognize multi-causality. The popular, top-down (pun intended) view of history, such that fashion styles follow the patterns of a president, is almost never correct.

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