Stephen Temkin’s
Hat Primer

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This primer is not merely a technical manual but also a personal one. It therefore contains not only factual material but also opinion. It is also an organic discourse, subject to change and likely to grow. Comments are always welcome, and if there is material that you would like to see included that is currently not here, please email your suggestions.

The primer includes an introduction on this page and eight other sections, each on its own page. Links to all of the content are shown here and also at the end of each section. I recommend reading the sections in order the first time through.

Introduction: The Way We Live Now

One might as well begin with the obvious: today, most men don’t wear hats, at least not most of the time. And those that do rarely wear fine hats or hats that imply dressiness or an intention to look stylish. Most of the men’s headwear worn today—baseball caps are the most obvious example—are the “non-hat” hats, those that can be worn without the risk of looking like someone who earnestly wants to enhance their appearance by wearing a nice hat. That’s fashion in the age of irony.

Historically speaking, the absence of hats is a relatively recent phenomenon. For several centuries prior, no man or woman would venture out of doors without some sort of headwear. This came to a quick and wholly unexpected demise beginning in the 1950s. By the end of the 1970s, dress hats had all but disappeared from the heads of men. That is a dramatic reversal of fortune for a mode of dress that had been integral to all walks of life—at least in the Western world—for hundreds of years.

Many have postulated theories as to why our culture abandoned hats. The most oft-repeated chestnut is that men lost their taste for hats because John F. Kennedy didn’t wear one at his presidential inauguration in 1961. It’s a flimsy theory, one that doesn’t explain why hats were abandoned not just by men, and not just by Democrats, and not just by Americans, but by men and women of all classes and inclinations, all over the world, and all pretty much at the same time.

The real reasons—and here I am speculating as much as anyone—are twofold: one cultural, the other functional.

First, western culture has been undergoing an inexorable movement (some would say decline) from the formal to the casual in public dress for at least a century. A hundred years ago, people dressed intently to be presentable in public. There were rules of dress, always changing and sometimes purposefully broken, but everyone knew them. (We may haughtily believe this to be the stiff and oppressive customs of a bygone era, but you would have likely seen much greater permutations of style on the streets of a city back then than you do now. It seems that with greater freedom has come greater conformity. And so the rules are still here, just not the same rules.)

The point is this: dress hats were an integral part of a dressier culture. As dressiness declined, the aesthetic and cultural context for such hats naturally diminished. Today, a man who intently dresses well simply to step out into public without having a specific reason (business, TV appearance, wedding, etc.) may be regarded as odd, eccentric, or even suspicious. And few things seem more intentional than a felt dress hat. Today, it’s not only true that most men don’t wear them, it seems to me that some men actually fear them, not merely wary of what a hat may say about who they are, but also that it may seem to be intended to say anything at all.

The second reason for the decline of hats is functional. Men’s hats are outerwear. Their primary purpose is to protect the head from the hazards and discomforts of the environment—precipitation, solar radiation and cold air—and to look handsome while doing so.

Before the automobile became a ubiquitous household item, men spent much more time exposed to the elements on a daily basis. The usefulness of a hat was never in doubt. Today, in some cities such as my hometown of Toronto, a person can live a fully functional and reasonably active life while only rarely stepping outdoors.

Ultimately, culture and fashion feed on themselves. We can venture into the realms of semiotics and social anthropology and find even deeper, more complex reasons why we wear what we wear. But if most men don’t wear hats today, I think the overriding explanation is blunt and obvious: most men don’t wear hats simply because most of the other men aren’t wearing hats. We are pack animals. Most of us prefer to follow the herd.

Now, all of this may seem like a rather self-defeating, dystopian view for a guy who makes and sells hats. It’s not—it’s merely realistic. But that realism is also tinged with some optimism. I look around and it seems to me that we’ve reached peak casualness, peak “hatlessness” if you like (really, could it get any worse?) and that a corner has been turned.

When I bought my first hat in the early 1990s, a low-end Panama, I would go for days, even weeks, without ever seeing another man wearing a straw summer hat. Now I see them frequently every day during the warmer months.

The same was true when I bought my first felt hat shortly thereafter. Felt has not returned to the streets quite as much as straw, but there does seem to be many more out there now than there were twenty years ago, and they are becoming increasingly popular among young men who are interested in sartorial style. A hat just doesn’t feel all that strange anymore.

Whether or not hats ever come back in a big way doesn’t matter much over here. Leon Drexler was not conceived to service a mass market. It is a small, artisanal enterprise that believes in the virtues of honest service and genuine craftsmanship, providing high quality, classic hats to the men who want them, whatever their numbers may be.

If you are one of those men, or thinking of becoming one, this primer is for you. It will provide information about felt dress hats in general as well as Leon Drexler hats more specifically, and will provide customers with a foundation of knowledge that will serve them through the process of buying a hat.