Hats, opera, and congruence

Somewhere over the period while I was on Mandatory Work Activity I lost my hat. I think I must have been too tired on the journey home, left it on the bus, and it didn’t get handed in to their lost property: someone must have nabbed it.

On the plus side, this weekend saw me treated by elder members of the “B’ Clan” to a visit to the Glyndebourne Touring Opera. When I say that others are worse off than me, I mean it: I have the support of some reasonably well-off family to help me out when times are tough, even if my own circumstances are less than lucrative.

Glyndebourne is an experience. When my grandfather treated me a decade or more ago, it was the summer season and that is without a doubt an occasion for pageantry and finery. The touring season is less so, but it is still an event for which people (for the most part) put on a good front when it comes to clothing. I saw a few in jeans and checked shirt style clothing, but even they looked like they had made some effort. Most were in some version of “Sunday best”, for a wide range of interpretations.

Chose the blurry pic because shy

Family & friends said I looked “dapper”

For me, it is a chance to throw myself into that spirit of pageantry, of showing off my very best, fanciest, poshest outfit. It is a day to do dressing up. I once saw on some leftie blog a guest post by a person who went to Glyndebourne without dressing up for it and complained about others’ attitudes (I suspect it must have been a summer season show); but to me that is a bit like going to a Renaissance Fayre in your jeans and t-shirt and complaining that (a) everyone else was dressed in Renaissance costume and (b) that people were disgruntled that you weren’t. (It’s worth noting nobody seemed to be bothered by the less dress-y outfits worn this time around)

In order to be ready, I decided to buy a replacement hat. And I decided I wanted a proper, broader-brimmed fedora. Try as I might, I cannot get past the effortless style of Hugh Fraser as Captain Hastings in the ITV “Poirot” adaptations. Of course, it’s not really effortless: he had a costume department of a TV company to design it. I’m not religious about it (I will wear jeans that he wouldn’t have, for example) but it’s a look that works for me, although sometimes I borrow from (David Suchet’s) Poirot’s look, or even from Philip Jackson’s Inspector Japp. (Poirot wears a homburg, and Japp wears a loose brim fedora more like Indiana Jones – I have a hat very like his from my dad)

I slipped up in my fashion senses, and ordered a black fedora to replace my brown one, because I had never been entirely convinced by the advice of the seller who sold me the brown one that brown would go with more things. Turns out, that seller was absolutely right. And when I went back to my reference photos (found on the internet) of Cpt. Hastings I discovered that he hardly ever wears a black hat; his snapped brim fedoras are all brown, or grey; and when in casual wear, always brown. So I need another hat (maybe I’ll get one for Christmas).

On the other hand, I was able to experiment with my new black hat. And I learned something: yes, in a black fedora, I am capable of looking like the USAian archetype fedora-wearer (or “knobhead”). However, when I wore an everyday suit (I don’t wear a suit every day, what I mean is, the sort of suit you’d wear to work in a customer-facing role) or my best suit, I did not look like the knobhead archetype, I looked – appropriate (for want of a better word).

This led to a deeper interpretation of the earlier findings.

Why does Capt. Hastings look so cool, but US fedora-wearer look so naff? Why does my hat look great with a dark suit but naff with anything else?

The answer is congruence.

In earlier times, when the fedora was a regular thing that people wore, hats were something of a social leveller (I found this while researching hats for a story I’m writing): people wore them as a matter of course, and similar styles were available to working class as well as middle and upper class folks. You see footage or photos of the interwar years and you’ll see what I mean: the main social marker of superiority, the top hat, still exists but other hats are remarkably even. I’ve also learned, as a byproduct of this research, what the distinction is between trilby and fedora: a trilby is a fedora with a narrower brim and almost always a snapped brim; it’s also more often what the “naff” fedora-wearer is depicted as wearing. So there’s a class thing in the variations of hat style, but hats helped level the playing field, so to speak.

The hat wearers aren’t bothered about wearing a hat, because everyone else is too, and it’s no kind of thing. Similarly, in the Poirot TV series, Capt Hastings wears a hat like it’s the most normal thing in the world, Inspector Japp wears his in the same way but rather more careless. Poirot is of course fastidious about his appearance so his homburg is a thing in that sense, but it’s coordinated and congruent with everything else. In each case, the hat is both normal attire and an appropriate part of the look. (And, in each case they have a costume department working on it…)

When I wear my black fedora with my dark suit, whether super-showy like for the opera (I even used my proper tie-it-yourself bow tie), or everyday “work” suit, and treat the hat as being just a head covering, it works.

But when I tried it with anything remotely casual it screamed naffness and arseholery. I saw in the mirror the type of knobhead the archetypes describe. The hat was incongruent with the rest of the presentation.

In my earlier post, I wrote, “The key thing is that I act like me, I dress like me, I wear hats like me, and I try to be the best me I can be.” This is the same kind of idea.

What I see when I see people, or photos of people, who fit the stereotype (and in real life I have seen one or two knocking about Cambridge since my earlier post) is an incongruence either of style (the hat is wrong for the rest of the look) or of manner, or both. What I mean by incongruence of manner, is that the hat is there to draw attention to itself, and thereby the wearer. The manner is one of ostentation, and the hat is an extension of that. A hat that says “look at me, I’m wearing a HAT, how STYLISH and DIFFERENT” is a problem (especially when coupled with other “statement” clothes/accessories/affectations/facial hair, and manner). That’s how come it doesn’t matter what sort of hat (bowler, trilby, fedora, porkpie, etc) the knobhead is wearing. A hat that simply sits on the head and provides covering, protection, comfort, and is treated as such by its wearer, is generally not going to create the same alarm bells and red flags. Even though I have that attitude with the black fedora and casual clothes, it is a problem because the clothing combination looks dishonest: the hat, by being incongruent, draws attention to itself and thereby becomes an issue.

Hats are social indicators in various ways: to be “wearing two hats” or “put on my other hat” is to fulfil two roles, or adopt a different role, in a conversation or situation. They also look good or naff depending on context. So naturally, you have to choose the right one. But at the same time, it is just an appropriate head-covering, offering shade, or protection, or both. Having chosen a hat to wear, it is just a hat.

So, I still do not have the right hat to replace the one I lost, but at least now I understand better about how hats work, and how they can very much not. I also know to pay much more attention to my style icons before I make my decisions on what to buy.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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