Mansplaining the Fedora

Well, actually, the hat that insufferable pretentious know-it-all young men have made infamous is the trilby, a hat with a shorter crown than a fedora and, crucially, a much narrower brim.  You know the type (of hat and of man) – possibly neckbearded, probably brings his own vinegar to brunches to force everyone to drink shrubs, so quick to mansplain: to volunteer his often unfounded knowledge of matters wide and far. Vociferously knowledgeable, in fact, about everything except his own ingrained biases and sense of entitlement.  For it is not generosity that prompts him to share his opinionated knowledge with everyone, but a desire to show he is in control, by displaying his apparent omniscience on all topics.  The misnomer “Fedora Guy” has entered popular slang for such a fellow, impugning the poor, almost extinct fedora. 

Like the trilby, the fedora got its name from the title character of a 19th-century play.  The hat that Sarah Bernhardt sported onstage as Princess Fédora Romazov became fashionable for women.  Decades later, the infamous Prince of Wales popularized the soft-brimmed, indented crown hat for men.  The width of the brim, which expanded by the middle of the 20th century, allowed for a dashing flare.  

The story could end there, because hats of any kind, apart from baseball caps, haven’t really been worn since the middle of the last century.  Sure, Classic Menswear Guys, there have always been men who wear hats, but since then it’s been basically impossible to wear one unself-consciously – and to do so suggests the extreme lack of self-awareness of Fedora Guy himself, unless the wearer belongs to some nearly invisible lofty social milieu where society and ceremony expect hats to be worn (which is the humblebrag Classic Menswear Guys are going for when they insinuate that they have been wearing hats all this time without thinking twice about it). 

Because of that near-extinction, hats do have a certain retro charm to them, even if that means wearing them is a form of costume. Today, most nice clothing really is costume (fight me). Still, it’s generally much easier to wear a suit and tie without feeling or looking affected than it is a hat. And since the mid-20th century until recent years, the fedora’s sporadic popularity was entirely as costume: A cult industry sprang up to replicate the specific variant of the fedora that Indiana Jones wore, as did another subculture of enthusiasts interested in gangster chic and other forms of 1930s and 1940s Americana, right down to the disturbing gender politics and xenophobia. Some aspects of the past are best left there.

My first visit to one of my shirtmakers offered me a literal window into the past: its bespoke floor also housed the shop-in-shop of the hatmakers Gélot, onetime hatmakers to King Edward VII.  A marvelous array of samples stood inside this deserted, beautiful sham boutique, including one hat in a marvelously plush charcoal felt. I couldn’t resist touching it, dense and decadent.  Gélot had been one of the last great French hatters; it ceased activity completely in the mid-2000s leaving behind only a legendary past, not just of royal warrants but of reverential caricatures by Sem and mythic stories like that of the director Jean-Pierre Melville, who years later reminisced about losing the half-dozen Gélot hats he had been storing when the studio where he had been filming Le Samouraï burned down. 

I learned years later that the incredibly soft felt I’d felt had probably been a long-hair beaver felt – felt made from the hairs of hares, beavers or nutria used to be the most prized for making hats, although nowadays rabbit felt is far more common in even the most expensive hats. Gélot seemed to have a specialty in that plush long-hair felt, known in French as taupé, and probably in English as pimp-hat-style. When I happened to find an old, old Gélot fedora in mint condition in exactly my size, I couldn’t resist picking it up, playing with the brim, seeing how it could curl and how long I could wear it without smirking at myself.  I do wear it out of the house, sparingly and as discreetly as possible, the same way that I try to restrain myself from volunteering unrequested knowledge.  Better not to be Fedora Guy, even if one finds oneself a fedora man.

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