Saturday, September 03, 2016

What happened to hats? Christian Dior speaks

Bishop Cunningham was too polite to notice, but others did.
Reposted from March 2015.

A short time ago I published a position paper on head coverings in church. In the Church's tradition, going back to the Apostles, men uncover their heads, and women cover them, during the liturgy. Men removing their hats is still demanded throughout the Church in practice: deviation from the custom is noted with a degree of shock. The custom of women covering them is widely, if not universally, observed in the context of the Traditional Mass, as well as being maintained in the Eastern Churches, but is seen in the Ordinary Form only when grand weddings demand hats for the ladies.

A complicating cultural factor is the disappearance, to an overwhelming extent, of headcoverings for both sexes in everyday life in Western fashion. This means that the liturgical custom looks like more of a big deal for women (who have to do something unusual: cover their heads), and less of a big deal for men (who just remain bare-headed), when for most of the history of the Church it was the other way round. Women simply kept on the headscarves, bonnets, veils, or hats, of their era, but men had to dandle their caps and hats in their hands or find a place to put them down or hang them up, no matter how cold the church was. This is why the Position Paper insisted on looking at the custom from the point of view of both sexes, and not just address the question: Why do (some) women cover their heads at the Traditional Mass?

Dior's 'New Look', with hat.

It raises the question: what on earth happened to hats? Photos of crowds out of doors from between the wars, and earlier, show practically everyone was wearing a hat of some kind. People didn't leave home without one. Things changed in the 1950s, much to the regret of the couturier Christian Dior, who explains that he never put an outfit onto the catwalk without one.

It may seem odd that we should go to all this trouble over a hat when women are in fact wearing them less and less. In my opinion, this regrettable departure is due to a reaction against those miserable pieces of headgear, in straw, bedizened with plumes and flowers, with which women disguised the poverty of their wardrobe during the war. Personally I consider that a woman without a hat is not completely dressed. The fact that very young girls can get away with being hatless has encouraged their mothers to imitate them. But they are simply depriving themselves of an agreeable addition to their appearance and are apparently not sufficiently aware that the cry:
    'How pretty you look today!' often means no more than:
    'How well your hat suits you!'

Dior by Dior: the Autobiography of Christian Dior, first pub 1957, p81 of the English edition.

Dior's views are interesting, but I am sceptical of his explanation of the demise of the lady's hat. More influential, I should think, would have been the fact that, as he regarded it as necessary for every outfit to have its own hat, the cost and inconvenience of ladies having to buy and store vast numbers of hats, each to be worn only a handful of times, told against it. As for men, a shop assistant at a famous London hatter once told me that it was small cars that did for hats. This is certainly a problem. Walking and public transport are much more friendly to hats, and the explosion of car ownership in the 1960s must take some blame for their demise. There's a lot to be said for the kind of hat which can be put in a pocket, such as caps and deerstalkers.

Dior encounters conservative opposition in the USA.
However, these sorts of factors don't go to the heart of the problem, which Dior brushes against when he notes that, as even he can see, 'very young women' can get away without hats. With men, it is again older men, with thinning hair, who benefit from them most, and when they were widely worn they made callow youths look more grown up. A big part of the explanation is that in the 1950s we are beginning to encounter the cult of youth. This was aided by the prosperity of the era, which put money in the pockets of young people as never before, something with increasing economic significance as baby-boomers came of age.

The cult of youth is also about a new focus on sexual attraction, particularly on attractive young women. This is manifested, obviously, in revealing clothes. In this context it is not hard to see that the replacement of hats with artfully coiffed hair not only plays to the lustrous manes of the young, but can be alluring in just the right way.

But as Dior noted, ladies look good in (good) hats. His own most notable achievement as a designer was the 'New Look', which made skirts longer, while emphasising a lady's waist. It was fun and attractive without being immodest. (The funniest passage in his book is his description of being picketed by American women angry at his promotion of a fashion which hid their legs.) The saddest thing about modern fashions is that while they are good at advertising the wearer's sexual availability, they don't make people look nice. Those with stunning natural looks can survive in this environment; the rest of us are left to flounder.

Right now, looking out of the window at the snow, I think people who walk around without hats are mad. Like the cricketer Chris Lewis, who got sunstroke after shaving his head and then refusing to wear a hat on tour in Antigua, I suppose they are suffering for the sake of fashion.

Mantillas on display the St Catherine's Trust Summer School, a Mass at Holywell
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  1. Men not wearing hats may have started after the Great War.

    'Another thing is hats. Men always wore hats. There was a famous businessman who was interviewed as he landed back from a trip to Europe and he was asked what the great movements were that he was apprehensive about. He said, “Communism and hatlessness!”

    'This is a very strange thing, isn’t it, to have given up hats altogether? I remember hats on the streets. Certainly when I first came [1920], everybody wore a hat. I wore a hat in college. What would you do if you met a lady of your acquaintance or of your family’s acquaintance? You must raise your hat.'

    Old New York Stories, Jacques Barzun

    But in my (Albany, NY, USA) church, men can sometimes be seen walking about in baseball caps, even during Mass (rare).

  2. I mostly started wearing hats (shortly after my conversion) specifically so I would have something to take off when I went in a Church. I very much enjoy the various acts of homage and deference associated with going into and moving around a Church, and so seeing a man who keeps his hat on in Church irks me more for being a waste of an opportunity than any other reason; it feels a bit like seeing someone throwing away perfectly good food.

  3. As far as the male sex is concerned, at least, Americans went on wearing hats longer than we did in Britain. In 1962, in London, I was working alongside an American who must have been in his mid-twenties, certainly no older than thirty. He had only recently moved to Britain. At home in New York, he told me, he never went out of doors without a hat on, while in London hatlessness was already the norm for young men of his age (and mine).
    I hadn’t heard about the small car hypothesis until now, but given the size difference between American and British cars in the sixties, it certainly seems plausible.