One resilient legend of the Kennedy presidency is that he was responsible for the American, and subsequently the Western world’s, virulent disavowal of hat wearing.
It’s often stated that his hatless inaugural appearance sparked a mass rejection of hat wearing from which the hat industry never recovered. Before that, every person wore a hat of some sort when out in public; like pants or shoes, wearing a hat was a necessity.
Of course, when Kennedy was engaged in some frivolity such as boating or golfing he might don the appropriate chapeau, but in his working capacity as chief executive, his pate was noticeably exposed, as opposed to predecessors like Truman (who had a signature fedora) and rivals such as Khrushchev (who wore a homburg), Castro (either a beret or a green cap), and Mao Zedong (a flat cap with a red star).
Some thought Kennedy’s antihat proclivity mere vanity, to draw attention to his youthful mane and the way he compared favorably to his often bald-headed competitors. But it signified something much more profound, actually: a declaration that the first world was no longer engaged in the industrial race.
Specialized hats of the West signified an industrial society. Different hats of different styles signified a mechanized workforce of highly trained experts, each one with a role not unlike the individual parts of a grand machine. The rest of the world, with its Western dress affectations, was merely mimicking these clothes to signify that they too were a part of the inexorable progress that industrialization represented.
Just as Soviet Russia and Maoist China had finally—through so much extraordinary and heroic exertion on the part of their hapless proletariats, and so many brutal and ambitious five-year plans—managed to cinch the distance between their own industrial capabilities and the capitalistic ones, Kennedy suddenly declared that the race was over, that the West had won. The USA was now in its “postindustrial” stage, and a new competition had started: the competition of consumerism, summarized succinctly in the famous dormitory poster “He Who Dies With the Most Stuff Wins.”
This declaration must have astounded Communist theoreticians; Marx’s dialectic had not allowed for this development in the inevitable trajectory of economic systems. In fact, according to Marx, Communism was supposed to be the stage after capitalism... not an aberrant postindustrial consumer society built on the back of third-world labor. Nevertheless, the hats were off and they have not been put back on (with the exception of baseball and trucker caps, which have enjoyed an enormous resurgence from the 1980s through the present day. The baseball hat is worn cross-culturally, in a slightly camp way, harking back to an era of stickball in the streets, war bonds, etc. As opposed to the hats of the industrial era, the baseball hat’s job is to erase/obscure identity rather than promulgate it. The trucker hat is slightly more masculine and simultaneously ironic and is favored by those who think of themselves as rebels, albeit with no ideology or actual intention to rebel).
The Industrial Revolution was the mechanization of labor and indeed of everyday life that started in Europe in the 18th century. It had been sparked by the Reformation (with its bourgeois and Protestant revolutions) and the discovery of the New World, and resulted in a Europe that colonized and enslaved the rest of the world through its more advanced armaments and organization. This mechanization of labor of course required a skilled workforce. The people, theretofore either farmers or tradesmen, were retrained by the ruling elite to work the machines.
For the industrial era, many hat styles were invented. Just as an army has many different uniforms—and particularly headgear—to organize, separate, stratify, and identify its units, so was industrial society organized. Every job would have a hat that would designate the wearer’s occupation.
The chef would wear a chef’s hat. The conductor would wear a conductor’s hat. The banker would wear a bowler. Whether one was a factory worker, a cowhand, a beater, or a bundler, there was a hat or hat variant that specifically designated your role and your income level. As a tiny individual cog, subsumed by the whole, each part or person has an outfit and a certain amount of pride in their role. They are an expert. Whether a rancher or a baker or a newsboy or a salesgirl or a factory line worker, their hat says who they are—what they can do and what their role is—in an integrated and intricately designed cosmos.
When the hat was summarily dismissed from people’s wardrobes, it was part of a new informality that announced: “I am no longer defined by what I do.”
Not only that, but suddenly in the postindustrial society, anyone could do anything. There were no more classes (supposedly) and no more specialists (a few exceptions persisted, such as doctors and mechanics, whose jobs became hyperspecialized).
The people were free to pursue their dreams and could “wear many hats” as they now needed to. People were in bands or were rappers or video artists—or the type of artists who happened to have a job, but the job was incidental. It was no big deal.
Most new job titles are nebulous, things like “assistant manager of human resources,” catchall monikers that both expect and prohibit particular responsibilities and expertise.
Nowhere is this “freedom” from old stratified roles more noticeable than in the music industry.
The old orchestra was a version of the industrial era’s stratification of roles and utilized many experts who were highly skilled in their very particular field. Other experts wrote the music and still others arranged it.
The rock ’n’ roll group was significantly more streamlined, with specialized personnel and a manager but fairly fluid role-play. There might be several singers (e.g., the Beatles) in one group, and such aggregates often composed their own material. Now, in the modern “one-person band” era, one individual is oftentimes responsible for every facet of “group” business, including artwork, booking, marketing, recording, and driving—let alone writing, arranging, and performing.
The aforementioned specific “work hats” especially (and even daytime nonspecialty hats, such as the fedora or the trilby) are now seen as costumey, ridiculous, and hopelessly old-fashioned in a society where the pretense is that “anyone can do anything.” But does this new freedom in the postindustrial society, where we have escaped being defined by our jobs, also have a sinister aspect?
Perhaps this hatless culture precipitated the destruction of workers’ movements. Perhaps the lack of expertise in our culture is what has allowed fast food and multinational corporations to take over everything. No one knows how to do anything in particular anymore. Jobs have all been exported to countries with cheap labor forces. Is it because people were encouraged to give up their identities as experts in a particular field by shedding their hats?
If they had kept their hats and their identities as skilled workers, the labor unions wouldn’t have dissolved, as they have, in the face of persistent and pernicious political attrition by the super-rich.
Now, in modern times, there emerges a new style. The man of today has taken to sporting a fedora, a trilby, or even a porkpie—hats that were despised a mere few years ago. This is not due to some cleverness on his part; he is wearing what has been prescribed to him by the mysterious Vulcans of the ruling circle. But what does this mean? Is it institutionalized nostalgia for an era when workers were organized, or for lost knowledge and a sense of place? Or does it mean that in the face of economic threats from China and India, with the revelation that prosperity based on housing speculation was an illusion, that the postindustrial experiment is over?
Teach your children the art of chimney sweeping. It’s time to go back to work.