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Whatever happened to hats?

A lesson in the economics of culture

2006.10.17 — Business | Culture | Fashion | Economics | by Barton Castor

Hat shop

Fedoras for sale, just 35 cents, mister. [Tysto photo]

Until the 1960s, hats were very popular with both men and women, so much so that, for a man, going out in public without a hat was seen as a bit like going out without shoes. Even outdoor laborers wore caps at work. But in the late 1950s and early 1960s, hats quite quickly became entirely optional, especially among young men, and then positively old fashioned. So what happened? And what happened to jobs in the hat industry? What happened was sunglasses.

In 1929, Sam Foster, under the trade name Foster Grant, began selling mass-produced sunglasses in Atlantic City. They were known before then, but somewhat expensive and had a somewhat negative association with spectacles for poor eyesight and dark glasses for the blind.

In 1929, Sam Foster, under the trade name Foster Grant, began selling mass-produced sunglasses in Atlantic City.

Soon, the US military commissioned Bausch & Lomb to create glare-reducing sunglasses specifically for pilots. But in 1936, Ray Ban created the classic Aviator sunglasses for pilots, a design that became standard for pilots a few years later during World War 2 because of its use of coating that blocked glare from polarized light.

Wartime photos of dashing aviators wearing sunglass without hats (hats being rather impractical in an aircraft) greatly influenced the American public. Still, it took a number of years for sunglasses to make hats seems old-fashioned. And a Foster Grant advertising campaign in the early 1960s sealed the fate of the stodgy formal hat.

[I]t's easy to imagine hat makers... spreading propaganda that sunglasses weaken or ruin eyesight.

The hat industry was very large, both for women and men, but not especially organized or strong. Perhaps hat makers didn't think that sunglasses were a direct threat to them. Today, it's easy to imagine hat makers lobbying legislators and the FDA to regulate sunglasses or spreading propaganda that sunglasses weaken or ruin eyesight. But at the time, the hat industry let the free market work—much to their detriment.

Hats haven't completely gone away, of course. The American love for sports and for looking young has especially kept alive the baseball cap, once worn only by players and little boys. Meanwhile, the infinite styles of women's hats, along with the fedora, the homburg, the derby, the boater, the panama, the top hat, the driving cap, and the pork-pie hat have largely gone the way of the powdered wig. Even that quintessentially American hood ornament, the cowboy hat, has been relegated to actual cowboys, who themselves are fading away.

[D]elivering the cheaper goods manufactured in those distant factories creates American jobs....

So, as jobs in the hat industry decreased, jobs in the new sunglasses industry increased. And so it has been with many other cultural developments and technologies. This continues to happen today as American manufacturing jobs are outsourced to overseas factories and data centers.

But delivering the cheaper goods manufactured in those distant factories creates American jobs in shipping, import, and retail. Implementing the cheaper technology solutions developed in overseas data centers creates American jobs in technology and offices. And producing goods and services to satisfy the demand created by the extra money saved by buying the cheaper goods and services from overseas also creates American jobs.

Just as new workings at the sunglasses factories in the 1960s were not necessarily the same ones who lost their jobs making hats, the American companies that benefit from the shifting job landscape (I won't call it flattening of the world) won't generally be the same ones directly hurt by it. But recognizing the shift allows some companies—and some workers—to move in the right direction and not get squashed by tumbling boulders.

You might want to buy a hard hat.


f e e d b a c k

Samuel L Jackson

The kangol, as modeled by SL Jackson. [source]

Mark Beckstrom writes:

I think you underestimate the number of baseball hats (or caps as you like to call them). The habidasheries and millineries of the past have been replaced by Lids and other "cap" stores. Also, I saw no mention of Kangol (a la Samuel L. Jackson, the walking endorsement). And if you thinks hats are gone, you've never been to Texas (cowboy hats still going strong).

Barton Castor replies:

I do mention cowboy hats as an exception, and I'm sure they're about as popular in Texas as baseball caps are in the rest of America, but they used to be worn all over the American West by people in all walks of life. And a search on "Texas people" and "Texas audience" turned up photos of people best described as "generally not wearing cowboy hats."

And I agree that haberdasheries and milliners have been replaced by stores that carry baseball caps, but Lids didn't kill the fedora. It filled in later, after the feathered and blow-dried hair phase of the 1970s. For that matter, sunglasses are now largely manufactured overseas along with baseball caps. But that was a couple of decades after the death of the formal hat.

Yes, Samuel L Jackson wears a kangol. Now... let us never speak of it again.

Dudgeon Schist writes:


JFK with his trademark Wayfarer sunglasses. [source]

Another significant factor in the decline of hats (at least for men) was hair. Elvis, Marlon Brando, James Dean . . . before those guys, men had no hairstyles to speak of. They used brill cream and such, mostly to keep their hair kempt under their hats. But James Fucking Dean? That dude didn't need no hat, because he looked good without one. The greased hair, then the unkempt, then the hippie, and on and on. Nobody was going to hide their hair under a hat anymore because it became so closely tied with young men's self-concept.

Barton Castor replies:

Absolutely, altho big hair doesn't keep the sun out of your eyes. Therefore, it's a little hard to say whether big hair really helped kill hats or lack of hats made big hair possible without hat-head. But Elvis, Brando, and Dean definitely must have been a factor. JFK—hatless in his Wayfarers—may have been just as big.


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