On Hats in the 1960s

Fred BelinskyDid you know that you can learn about the history of our country by examining the hats that people wore? Well, Fred Belinsky sure does. He’s the owner of the Village Hat Shops in California. Fred knows hats inside and out. He can tell you when a man should tip his hat at a lady and whether it’s okay to wear a hat indoors. While I wrote A Thousand Never Evers, I turned to Fred for all my burning hat questions. I’ll let you eavesdrop on one of our conversations:

Q: I read on your website that hats have always been important in children’s literature. A hat with plastic strawberries on the brim plays a leading role in my book. I need to make sure that a lady in 1963 could be wearing a hat like this. Could you please tell me when hats with plastic berries or flowers on the brim became popular?

In the late 1800s, most women’s hat trims were bird feathers, egrets being the most popular.  Sometimes even whole stuffed birds served as hat decoration!  A group of educated, well-to-do women in the Northeast became outraged at the slaughter of birds in the wild.  They organized and founded the National Audubon Society.  Through their efforts, fashionable women’s hats turned to man-made materials for trimmings—fake fruit, costume jewelry, ribbons. You name it and it probably was used as trimmings. All came into fashion as a replacement to feathers from live birds.  Very much like the efforts of many women to avoid wearing real fur apparel today, these women led the way in making interesting, well-made, materials fashionable as hat trimmings.

Q: I’m trying to figure out whether my white characters would wear hats to a Garden Club meeting if the meeting is held indoors.

The etiquette for wearing hats indoors was and is different for women than for men. Women would most definitely keep their hats on at the Garden Club meeting. Women can wear hats indoors, period. The rules for men are more complicated and there is some controversy. In some public places, men may leave their hats on, and herein lies the controversy regarding which places are okay and which are not. The argument continues today and the rules are even murkier, as both hat wearing and traditional manners are in flux.

Q: What types of hats would women wear in the early 1960s?

Millinery—women’s hats—has always spoken more to art and sculpture than to function. Shape, color and trim have preceded fit and practicality in importance. Pinwheels, Bretons, cloches, toques, pill boxesberets, swingerswesterns—virtually any shape, size, color and trim continue to be in and out of fashion from one short season to the next. This has been the case for decades if not centuries.

Q: Did African American and white women wear the same kinds of hats?

African American women wore and still wear very elaborate hats. The background and reasons for this “hattitude” are profound. I suggest reading the book CROWNS: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry with a forward by Maya Angelou. This book was a sensation a few years back.

Q: What types of hats did men wear back in 1963?

This would be different from one region to another. Generally, however, straws were worn in the spring and summer, and felts in the fall and winter. In most of America, fedoras were by far the leading style. However, depending on one’s occupation, social standing, ethnic background, and geographic identity we would also have seen pork piesstraw skimmers , western hats, cloth hats, and caps like flat caps and Irish Walkers.

Q: What is the difference between a cowboy hat and a western hat? Are they the same thing? And which one would a white man living in 1963 Mississippi wear? I can’t figure it out but I need to because a hat like this plays an important role in my book. Please help!

Interesting question. I think the answer depends a bit on the character’s personality. A “real working cowboy,” someone who is living in the “cowboy culture,” may call his hat a “cowboy hat” more readily than someone like myself who has been in the west for twenty-seven years and is just now becoming comfortable with wearing “western hats.” If the character is young and informal (but not a true cowboy), he’d likely call his hat a cowboy hat. I think that a more formal person—say the wealthy owner of a ranch or business—would call his hat “western.”

Q: What is your favorite hat today and why?

I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan and have been in California for the past twenty-seven years. When I first moved west and opened a hat store, I was comfortable in fedoras. They represented who I was as a Detroiter, my experience, what I knew. But my hat style preference has changed. No longer do I feel like myself in a fedora. The air around me has changed and so have I. Although I do not wear full-blown western hats, my brims have been getting bigger. I now wear what we in the industry call a “crossover” style (as between east and west). I’m more a westerner every day.

You can visit Fred Belinsky and his hats at www.villagehatshop.com.


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