|It is said
that when Clark Gable took off his shirt and was wearing
no undershirt in the 1934 screwball comedy It
Happened One Night, it resulted in a fashion
trend that injured sales of undershirts and infuriated
underwear manufacturers. Director Frank Capra had Gable
abandon the undershirt only because it was interfering
with the humorous delivery of his lines. It took him too
long to undress. Then the curse to underwear
manufacturers was lifted when Marlon Brando appeared
wearing an undershirt in the 1951 film, A
Streetcar Named Desire. Similarly, when John F.
Kennedy doffed his silk top hat, leaving it only for that
moment on the seat next to Eisenhower, and appeared at
the podium hatless for his 1961 inauguration, the fedora
ceased to be fashionable.
My first hat was a gift that came from a friend in high school. It was on a day I was giving him a lift home in my first car, a 1967 MGB Roadster. The tiny windshield did not come with a sun visor. Meanwhile, I could not wear cheap sunglasses. In those days the plastic lenses were often distorted and since I had superior vision, better than twenty-fifteen, I was inclined to get headaches when I wore them. My problem was that and having a large head, ears far back, eyes close together, it was next to impossible to find a pair that would fit me. For reasons I never understood, my father's optometrist convinced my father that I was too young to be trusted with an expensive fitted pair of sunglasses. The lack of sunglasses became a particular hassle when driving. On this day driving home from school, I was complaining about the sun being in my eyes. My friend, John, took off his tan suede cap and gave it to me. He claimed it was issued by the Mexican military to be worn in the desert and told me to keep it. It proved excellent. All I had to do was tilt my head and the brim blocked the sun. I have been wearing hats of one kind or another ever since. I would soon develop further reasons for wearing hats.
Throughout childhood and well into adulthood I blindly admired my father and wanted to be like him. Since my father was bald and thought nothing of it, when it was evident even in my early twenties that I was becoming bald, I thought nothing of it. Hair was a nuisance. Curious, too, whenever I went to a concert, either the opera or the orchestra, I always noticed the preponderance of bald men. What does it mean?
It is completely alien to me why so many men dread being bald, that there are numerous "cures" and "disguises" in the marketplace to alleviate the condition. Why should some men want to disguise an irrevocable characteristic of masculinity? Far more disgusting to my sense of aesthetics is the obvious toupee, or the geometrically arranged phalanx of plugs, or the ridiculously inadequate comb over. Why are so many men easily deluded into believing their disguises work? How do they remain unaware of the chuckles behind their backs, of the difficulty others have trying not to stare at their comic attempts at concealing the truth? And thus, like my father, I went bald. Also, like my father, I took to wearing fedoras, my father's fedoras at first. My friends know me for my hats, especially the fedora.
When you are bald, you must deal in winter with the tremendous loss of body heat that readily dissipates through the head. There is also the need to keep rain and snow from falling on your face or down the back of your neck inside the collar, for which the fedora is particularly excellent having a brim that wraps around the crown. In summer, I wear a straw fedora that keeps the sun off my scalp and face, a protection against sunburn and skin cancer.
I realize I am out of synch with fashion. I have always been. My taste in clothing has always been pragmatic. Form should follow function. My first concern is comfort, which involves a preference for natural fibers. I try to dress in preparation for the vagaries of weather. And I must have pockets.
Far from my comprehension is fashion for fashion's sake. I watch the young men wear their caps backwards defeating the purpose of the brim. I watch boys wear their pants below their buttocks in order to show off their boxer shorts, a style I'm sure was invented by pedophiles. So much for boys running and jumping or climbing trees, they appear to be imitating the fashion sense of "slack jaw" yokels. I have difficulty not laughing, but it's only fair as I'm sure they are laughing at me.
I will adhere to fedoras, the iconographic identification of hardboiled detectives, cynical reporters, bluesmen, and spies from the thirties and forties. However, they wore fedoras because all men wore fedoras in those days and not just those with injured souls. I don't regret the association. But those detectives, reporters, bluesmen, and spies all shaved while I sport an unkempt beard. My wife thinks I look more like a Hasidic Jew. For that reason I avoid black fedoras. I own shades of brown and grey, and today I am wearing my Lagomarsino Nutria, which is dark green.
For many years good fedoras were hard to find. Cheap ones replaced the good ones. Wool felts replaced fur felts. The edge of the brim was left raw, without edging. The hats would have no satin lining. The sweatband would not be leather. It used to be my father could walk into Philadelphia's Wanamaker's and have his hat cleaned and blocked, but for many years the city had no one who could do this. The hat-check "girl" nearly became extinct. Now, when there is someone to take my fedora, they inevitably hold it by the crown and not the brim, and they don't know to put it upside down on the shelf. But the situation is improving.
I have been fortunate in Dietz Hats, a small place crammed with hats. The shop's location has moved about and Mr Dietz has been dead a number of years. It is now South Street Hats, owned and operated by one of Dietz's longtime employees. The service has always been good, so have the prices, and they have kept me in supply of hats for these many years.
Sometimes I feel the need to take refuge in my comfortable clothes, a portable shelter, familiar and home-like when I am not at home. I like to have my clothes cuddle and reassure me. Reality can be frightening to me at times, reality being indifferent to my comfort and meaningless if I remain unwilling to adopt one of the many creeds available from a myriad of religions. I will sometimes console myself in fictions and resort to just hiding under my hat.
This essay is the most recent in
a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr
Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the
writer would be pleased
to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"