Updated: Jan 25
Said no one ever, "I'm going to run out at lunch today and get my hat trimmed."
Recently, I was passing by the old Lit Brother's building in Philadelphia. It is a notable landmark because it is a full block of Victorian architecture, primarily built with a "cast-iron" facade. It was initially built in 1895 and then continually modified in the Renaissance-Revival style until it spanned a full city block in 1907. The unusual building housed one of the largest retailers in one of the largest cities in the world. It was a retail store that positioned itself as an affordable alternative to local high-brow competitors. As a store for the people, it had its slogan emblazoned in a galvanized iron trim, "A Great Store in A Great City."
As I looked at the beautiful facade, I imagined the masses, the people of this city, entering with anticipation and exiting with packages, bustling together on the crowded city streets of an era long ago. Looking up at the iron ribbons layered in bronze, my eyes caught sight of something peculiar. Above each building entrance, there was another message in galvanized iron trim, "Hats Trimmed Free of Charge." Wait, what?
That the imperative of this message was to be set in a cast-iron form and then subsequently soldered to the building's face was puzzling. It was a simple product marketing message. Lit's should have conferred that message with newspaper circulars, posters in the storefront windows, or even the billboard equivalent of a painted brick wall. No, the owners specifically decided to rivet a second branding message to the people of that great city that would stand the test of time, to make the community aware of their eternal commitment to hats and hat wearers.
Hats had been around for thousands of years. Their functional goal was uncontroversial and fairly necessary; protect the head. Soon after they were introduced into various societies, dating as far back as the early Egyptians, hats became more than a shield from the elements. They quickly became fashion statements and status symbols, which helped define social rankings in societies. Caps were even used as political devices to disassemble the class structures they once created.
Hats were a demonstration of wealth and prosperity, especially among women. The bigger the hat, the bigger the bank account. Men in the 19th century favored the prestige of the top hat. Its height regularly changed, as did societal norms. It became shorter and more practical, eventually becoming the derby or bowler, the working man's hat.
Before the turn of the 20th century, the world was in the midst of the Second Industrial Revolution, and innovation coupled with commercial productivity brought forth consumerism at unprecedented levels. Style and status needed to be understood by everyone, and everyone required access. Hats provided that currency.
A man would no sooner be seen in public without a hat than he would be seen in public without his trousers. Noted English novelist George Gissing put to pen a relevant story about a man whose life was ruined due to the circumstances of his hat flying off of his head while on a train ride to a big city. The otherwise earnest and hardworking man did not have money to buy a new hat, so he stole money from his employer rather than being seen walking through the city without a hat. A series of moral failures, lying, cheating, and stealing, ultimately leads to his ruin and untimely death—all predicate to losing his hat and his concern for his social status. Hatless men, baring their heads to all, were even ridiculed openly in the streets at that time. For no other reason than style and status, they were shamed and canceled. This fictional story seems hard to imagine by today's standards, but in fact, this was a reality of life and society. Hats for men became less utility and more liability. Not wearing a hat had become a sign of disrespect towards others and a sign of an uncivilized and lowly status.
Look at the pictures that history supplies. This is not a simple coincidence of style. It is conformity and collective groupthink at its finest.
When I step back and think about our current moral fibers and the currencies by which we judge and are judged, I can't help but consider the dramatic similarities. We can think it absurd that the hat-wearing citizens of the world had lost their individuality, their self, in the collective groupthink of that period. For something so trivial and inconsequential, they would be led to lie, cheat and steal, if only to be accepted by the nameless, and faceless people in their unconnected world. That is because group-think is timeless, insidious, has many children, and of course, wears many hats.
We are exposed to the elements of groupthink within our society, and we choose to accept it, we willfully choose to conform to the societal norms. No person is forced to participate, but rather we all acquiesce as a path of least resistance. We may not like the way we look in a hat anymore than we accept the political position of our neighbors or vice versa. But we judge as though we have individual thoughts.
We need to remember that our politics shouldn't define ourselves and our thoughts, but rather our selves and our thoughts should define our politics. We need to lead our communities past groupthink, cancel culture, and intolerance into a better open-minded and blue sky world that values negotiation and compromise. We need to identify those ideals which are not our own but belong to others who have scope and influence and persistence.
The media today, of course, is the greatest influencer, just as it has always been. The forms of media have changed from analog to digital, but they have always promoted the prevailing rights and wrongs of our societies to a fault. These maelstroms of subjectivity overwhelm the oceans of objective reasoning and provide the influencing factors for all to skew mercilessly. We will lie to our families, cheat our business partners, and steal from our friends all in the pursuit of a gratuitous acknowledgment, or to protect ourselves from scrutiny as defined by the media.
In the days, weeks, and years following World War II, suddenly and without warning, hatlessness quickly became acceptable. Abruptly, with hats, social stigma and status no longer mattered. Historians have no tangible reason for this phenomenon. The rapid access to the automobile is the most common explanation because of the protection provided by those within it from the elements. No longer were people walking for extended periods outside when they could drive instead. Others suggest that those returning from the war felt anxiety from wearing hats because of the association with the uniforms they wore during battle. Some point to JFK's fabulous hair and his unwillingness to wear the traditional top hat during his inauguration.
Regardless of those rationalities, the social reasons behind the transition are not so clear. The shift, however, was dramatic and decisive: those who wore hats to blend into societal norms were now wearing them only to stand out in a crowd.
The Lit Brothers store sold to a private equity firm in 1928 at a time when hats were at a high point. From its origin, Lit's was a retail store that specialized in millinery products but quickly grew to a large and powerful retail establishment that served its broad middle-class customers dutifully and loyally. It established a powerful brand and trust with the people.
In reality, the Lit Brothers were not just trying to sell hats to the people of Philadelphia. They were offering a promise, set in iron and bronze lettering, immutable by the elements, or fire, or time itself. The contract was to forever be there for their customers, to help them try to be individuals in a society that required them to conform, required them to be judged as well as to judge on matters of the day that were not so meaningful but altogether important to their daily life.
So too, and suddenly, will end the days of selfies, likes, "heart emoji's", and followers. Historians will wonder at the fascinations of endless pictures of our plated dinners, dance routines, and scathing criticisms of people unknown, places untravelled, and perspectives unpondered. All of these trivialities when we are at such a critical crossroads of who we are, and who we want to become.
I should think I deserve to don a nicely trimmed hat, if not only for posterity but to stand out in the crowd today.
NB: How we act and the words we use are transitive to our everyday social threads, which leads to one last observation I need to point out. When I first read "Hats Trimmed Free of Charge," I envisioned someone depilating my fedora with a grooming tool or snipping the feathers in the band that had come unkempt; spruce up for a night out on the town. Alas, the trimming of hats is akin to the ornament of a Christmas tree during the holidays or the hats' adornment to make it a personal, unique, and worthy lid.