Stephen McGinty: Change – at the drop of a hat

Frank McHugh, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in the 1939 film Roaring Twenties. Picture: Warner Bros
Frank McHugh, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in the 1939 film Roaring Twenties. Picture: Warner Bros
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AS HE approaches a certain age, Stephen McGinty is faced with the dilemma of whether it is time to ditch his travel-worn baseball cap for the far more genteel Panama

I have often wondered why the milliners of America have never been suspects in the assassination of President John F Kennedy.

The military industrial complex? Check. Lyndon B Johnston? Check. Disgruntled Cuban nationals? Check. A law-abiding group of Italian-American businessmen? Check.

A man could go blind searching the transcripts and testimony of the Warren Commission for even a single reference to a manufacturer of quality headwear, and yet the election of JFK almost single- handedly removed the hat from the head of the American male.

On the campaign trail milliners and hat manufacturers would often present the young candidate with a new fedora and he would do everything with it, except put it on his head. He would hold it out, admire it, complement its curves and then pass it to his nearest aide, who added it to the ever-growing column of hat boxes at the campaign headquarters.

For JFK knew that if you had as good a head of hair as he, you didn’t go mussing it up with a hat.

A hat also carried a political point and defined a generation, the current generation wore hats, the next generation did not, and JFK knew where his sartorial loyalties should lie.

He was even referred to as “Hatless Jack”, and if the most powerful man in the country had no need of hat, then why should anyone else? Hat sales slumped.

The assassination in Dallas returned the hat to the American president’s head. Lyndon B Johnston, from the hill country of Texas, was fond of his Stetson, but for the milliners of America it was too late. It didn’t happen overnight, but each morning in some other house the hat was left hanging on the coat-stand as the briefcase, raincoat and brolly went off to work. By 1970 the era of the hat was over.

When it comes to hats I’ve always remembered the wisdom of P J O’Rourke, who said: “If you have a hat, take it off your head and stand on it. No one looks good in hats.” Yetsome people do look good in hats. Watch any gangster film set in the 1920s and 1930s when everyone wore hats and some men look great in them. James Cagney. Humphrey Bogart. Gabriel Byrne in Miller’s Crossing, a film so enamoured with this hey-day of hats that one even appeared in the opening shot before spinning off across the forest floor. The difference then was that, as I said, everyone wore a hat, it wasn’t a choice of style but of convention. Had Byrne wandered around without a hat then people would begin to talk.

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to wear a proper hat. I’m not talking about a knitted beanie hat or even a flat farmer’s cap as insulation against the cold but a genuine fedora, the type of hat you couldn’t help but run your hands round the rim of and that comes in a box.

I’ve noticed that George Galloway has started wearing a fedora. If you follow him on Twitter he’s now rarely seen without a dark fedora pulled rakishly over one eye and I can’t help wondering at what point he thought: “Something’s missing. I know. I need a hat.” It is now part of his stage outfit during his frequent defences of the Union.

For George Galloway it seems to be part of his personality, to be bigger, louder, bolder than any other politician and this, he has clearly decided, requires the addition of a hat.

The reason hats are now on my mind, but not yet on my head, is the prospect of a summer holiday and the necessity, as one hailing from a nation rarely bothered by a visible sun, of some type of head covering.

For I’ve always believed that hats are entirely acceptable through climatic necessity but should be frowned upon if worn as a result of affectation and personal taste. And yet once one has established the necessity of wearing a hat for protection against the sun’s rays this, of course, opens up the question of exactly what type of headwear?

The knotted hankie, though once popular and versatile, has gone the way of “kiss me quick” T-shirts and donkey rides, and now for the average man there is really only a choice between two options: the baseball cap or the Panama hat.

For 30 years the baseball cap has been my headwear of choice. As I type, my worn green skip-style hat is sitting on top of the suitcase ready for its latest jaunt to the sunshine. Over the past few decades it’s accompanied me to Singapore and New Zealand, Egypt and Cuba, around Italy and France and the Caribbean and across most of America.

Outside Havana I visited the dilapidated former home of Ernest Hemingway and noted with a degree of satisfaction that his choice of hat while skippering the Pilar around the waters of the Caribbean in search of marlin and, later, German submarines, was remarkably similar to my own.

If it was good enough for “Papa” to wear into his 50s then surely it’s still good enough for me? One would think so, but in recent summers I’ve began to ponder a life beyond the worn skip baseball cap and am seriously contemplating a move across to the Panama hat.

I am, after all, a worn and grizzled middle-aged man and no longer of an age when I did actually play baseball – rather well since you ask, in fact, short-stop and good enough to be picked to play for my country in an international against the auld enemy England, an international that was cancelled due to a water-logged ground before our mini-bus had even passed Scotch Corner, an international never re-scheduled thus denying me a genuine cap (baseball or otherwise) for my country.

I’ve been trying to pin down the increasing allure of the Panama hat and I think that it is a combination of pondering whether to start dressing my age and that hankering all men have had, which is to imagine how good they would have looked in a hat had they lived in the 1930s.

For I’ve realised that the Panama hat is an opportunity to style one’s self – for a fortnight at the most – as a sun-dappled gangster or a bleached-out Indiana Jones. Perhaps I’m over- thinking this too much and that a hat is just a hat and not an outward sign of an inward fantasy, but I’ve also pondered whether the purchasing of a Panama hat would also necessitate a radical upgrade in my summer wardrobe.

A worn light-green baseball cap does rather compliment worn jeans, faded shorts and T-shirts, but would the arrival of a pristine Panama require the accompaniment of a linen suit? Normally my pre-holiday concerns rarely stretch beyond what books to pack, but this year an air of melancholy is hanging over the suitcase as I think this may well be the last year that I’m accompanied by my trusty baseball cap.

Then again there is always the distinct possibility that while my head, lifestyle and dress sense is perfectly suited to the baseball cap, the arrival of a Panama hat could well throw everything into flux.

There are people whose heads aren’t meant to hold up certain hats and I could be just that person. You’ll have seen the sort – the hat looks as if it has fallen from a great height and the person hasn’t even noticed its sudden arrival.

I have also considered that this could also just be a summer romance with my eye caught by another and that, in the cold light of reason and holiday tradition, I’ll remain faithful to the hat that has sheltered me from the sun for so many years. We’ll have to wait and see.