The Controversial Choice That Is the Fedora

Men looking at the night sky wearing fedoras
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

Is there a single item in all of menswear with a more divided reputation than the fedora?

On the one hand, it’s synonymous with the glamour and style of a golden era of twentieth-century men’s dress. On the other, not unlike the ‘neckbeard’, it has come to symbolise a pernicious vein in modern masculinity that encompasses everything from negging pickup artists to the so-called ‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’, as Jamie Peck once put it in a fedora-themed piece written for Vice. 

Fedoras have proven to be the hat of choice for the very best and the very worst dressers, with surprisingly little in between. In the dapper category are the matinée idols and on-screen PIs from the early decades of the previous century. If I asked you to close your eyes and think of a hat from this era, I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts you’d picture Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, or Frank Sinatra in some version of a snap-brim. 

Humphrey Bogart wearing a fedora
Humphrey Bogart, the consummate on-screen private detective and famed fedora fan
Image credit: Insomnia Cured Here / CC BY-SA 2.0

Then there are the contemporary menswear figures, guys like Ethan Newton of Bryceland’s or Simon Crompton of Permanent Style, who offer a way into classic menswear and its totemic topper that’s in keeping with its original, sophisticated spirit rather than its recently depreciated rep. And, for those of us who love hats, their help has come not a minute too soon.

The fedora — like the trilby for which it is often mistaken — was named for a woman and started its life being worn primarily by women, albeit ones pushing the boundaries of gendered clothing. It even became a symbol of women’s rights activism (It’s a strange irony, then, that today it would be associated with the male equivalent). 

The fedora was invented around 1882 and derives its moniker from the heroine of Victorien Sardou’s play, Fédora, for which the star of the production, Sarah Bernhardt, wore a centre-creased hat with a soft brim on stage. Many ladies followed Bernhardt’s bold lead, but within a few decades in the 1920s, the fedora had become the nearly exclusive purview of men, where it remained a default hat choice for nearly half a century. 

Vintage line of men wearing hats
Image credit: The New York Public Library on Unsplash

The eventual disappearance of formal headwear from men’s wardrobes is well-trodden territory by this point. President John F. Kennedy often takes the blame for their extinction, since he hated hats and rarely wore them during his presidency, even after representatives of the U.S. hat-making industry wrote to him begging him to wear one. Kennedy was no doubt keenly aware of his youthful image’s influence on younger voters and a female electorate who outnumbered their male counterparts by two million. So why risk covering that great head of hair with an increasingly fusty-looking topper?

Others take a longer view. Neil Steinberg’s book Hatless Jack, for instance, traces the steady disappearance of male headwear as far back as the late nineteenth century. The Second World War seems to have had something to do with it too since soldiers who were forced to wear hats as part of their uniforms felt less inclined to do so when they returned to civilian life. Plus, to a younger, more egalitarian-minded generation hats were becoming symbols of conformity and outdated class structures. 

Or maybe it was cars that did it, what with their low roofs and internal heating. Better to leave your bonnet in the boot — or your top hat in the trunk, if you prefer. 

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in À bout de souffle
Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (Breathless)
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

Whatever the reason, famous fedora-wearers have been few and far between since the 1970s. When they do pop up, though, they have generally tended to be more on the eccentric side (appropriately, you might say, for such a characterful garment). I’m thinking here of figures like Michael Jackson, Tom Waits, Johnny Depp, Keith Richards, and Yoko Ono, as well as multi-hyphenates and men-about-town Quentin Crisp and George Melly. 

Of course, in our own time, there is probably no character — real or otherwise — more closely associated with this particular style of hat than Indiana Jones. The character first arrived on our screens in 1981, but his own world is that of the 1930s, where (it’s worth noting) the fedora would have been a more formal choice of headgear, relatively speaking. So by pairing it with a pilot jacket and khakis, Jones seems to dress his signature hat down somewhat, not unlike his countless real-life imitators in the twenty-first century, few of whom have quite managed to match Dr Jones’ cinematic flair. 

It does make you wonder: How might the contemporary reputation of the fedora have differed had Indie gone on all of those archaeological hunts in a three-piece suit and a pair of Oxford shoes instead? 

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