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An abandoned hat on a garden wall reminded me again of how visible an indicator of historical periods hats are. In old film footage of cinema audiences, the most glaring feature is the fact that almost every man and quite a few women are smoking. In old footage of urban street scenes, everyone is wearing a hat – not only workmen, cardinals and private detectives.
(Humphrey Bogart as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe)
Useful to raise when meeting a female acquaintance, to remove when a funeral cortège passed, and on Remembrance Day. Some people still wear them—I have three myself, two that don’t fit while the third is a faltering Panama—but it’s a positive and individual choice these days. As to why such a widespread habit died out – suggestions include changes in social class, baldness and increased car ownership. A few years ago, en route to a crematorium, I saw a youngish man, sitting down on the kerb at a bus stop, catch sight of the cortège and emphatically make the sign of the cross on the frayed jacket buttoned over his chest. Religion was a complicating factor there but a hat to doff would have simplified matters. Philip Larkin, famously, ‘hatless’, took off his cycle-clips ‘in awkward reverence’.
In one of his autobiographical volumes, David Garnett remembers his friend Ralph Wright, who had fought at Gallipoli and had one of his brothers killed beside him; then fought in France. Once, on a bus, passing the Cenotaph, he was deep in a book ‘and an old gentleman tapped him angrily on the shoulder. “Take your hat off, young man. Why don’t you pay some respect to our glorious dead?”
“I am one of our glorious dead,” replied Ralph in a mild voice. Mark Twain would have called this a gross exaggeration but there was a truth in it which applied to thousands of survivors of the war. It was not only the body and the brain that could be killed or wounded, but the spirit.’
A hat is a minor plot device in James Joyce’s story, ‘Counterparts’, when Farringdon is slipping out to the pub – again. ‘The chief clerk glanced at the hat-rack but, seeing the row complete, offered no remark. As soon as he was on the landing, the man pulled a shepherd’s plaid cap out of his pocket, put it on his head and ran quickly down the rickety stairs.’ Farringdon is soon in the snug of O’Neill’s shop, downing a glass of porter – and a caraway seed to take away the smell of the alcohol.
(Rose Macaulay via Times Literary Supplement)
Penelope Fitzgerald thought that Rose Macaulay was ‘most characteristically English’ in part because she was ‘given to wearing flat tweed caps, or hats like tea cosies’. By the early years of the Second World War, Mollie Panter-Downes was commenting that Englishwomen ‘have never looked prettier than they do these days when they are dressing more simply, often going hatless, and working so hard that sleep comes easy at night, bombers or no bombers.’
(Benjamin Robert Haydon, Wellington on the Field of Waterloo: Walker Gallery)
The Duke of Wellington seems to have been very attached, sentimentally as well as (usually) physically, to his hat. Benjamin Haydon had borrowed it because he was painting the Duke’s portrait (the last of several). On the morning after Haydon had shot himself, not very successfully, having to finish the job by cutting his throat, Wellington sent a servant round to Burwood Place to recover his hat, having seen the news in The Times. I find this strongly reminiscent of the Tommy Cooper joke about the man calling round to his neighbour’s, being told he’s died the previous night and, after a lengthy pause as if digesting the news, asking the widow: ‘Did he say anything about a pot of paint?’
The Victorian clergyman and diarist Francis Kilvert recalled that, ‘when people were going to market on Thursday mornings they would exhort one another to come back in good time lest they should be led astray by the Goblin Lantern, and boys would wear their hats the wrong way lest they should be enticed into the fairy rings and made to dance.’ (Is this why so many men still wear baseball caps the wrong way round? Get into those fairy rings and dance!) Julian MacLaren-Ross wrote of an acquaintance called Nott: ‘He had one of those faces that once seen is never remembered. In London I used to identify him only by a green tweed hat: of such a shape that, in order to wear it correctly, he’d been obliged to print “BACK” and “FRONT” in ink on the lining, afterwards adding “SIDES” (at my suggestion) to preclude any possibility of error.’
William Gaunt writes that, in the 1830s, ‘The intellectuals of Paris wore the steeple-crowned hats and sinister cloaks of Italian brigands and cultivated disdain for the law-abiding citizen.’ This image fed into the various versions told of Wyndham Lewis’s first encounter with Ford Madox Ford, then editing The English Review:
‘He seemed to be Russian. He was very dark in the shadows of the staircase. He wore an immense steeple-crowned hat. Long black locks fell from it. His coat was one of those Russian-looking coats that have no revers. He had also an ample black cape of the type that villains in transpontine melodrama throw over their shoulders when they say “Ha-ha!” He said not a word.’
The mysterious stranger establishes himself ‘immovably against the banisters’ because the editor is attempting to push him down the stairs, and begins ‘fumbling in the pockets of his cape. He produced crumpled papers in rolls. He fumbled in the pockets of his strange coat. He produced crumpled papers in rolls.’
These crumpled rolls of paper resolve themselves into ‘The Pole’, Lewis’s first published story, which appeared in The English Review in May 1909. Opening his book on Lewis with the tale of this encounter, Hugh Kenner comments that, ‘The magician’s gestures owe their meaning to the fact that the rabbit from the hat—like the story from the cape—has no history.’ Yes, a man with no history appearing to another man, Ford, who was carrying a great deal of it, some of which he sought to shed.
(Tissot, The Gallery of H. M. S. Calcutta (Portsmouth): Tate)
From hats to hatters. James Tissot (born Jacques Joseph in Nantes in 1836 – he changed his name to signal his fondness for England and English things – moved from Paris to London in 1871, partly to avoid possible trouble following his participation in the defence of the Paris commune. His mother designed hats, a background that surely influenced the content of many of his paintings: women, often society women, in gorgeous clothes and hats, with details expertly rendered.
The Mad Hatter is inextricable now from Lewis Carroll, who never actually refers to his Hatter as mad, though the chapter is called ‘A Mad Tea-Party’. The phrase ‘as mad as a hatter’ preceded Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as did ‘mad as a March hare’. T. H. White wrote confidently of the man who was, he said, the original of Lewis Carroll’s Hatter, a seventeenth-century eccentric named Robert Crab, ‘a haberdasher of hats at Butterbury’, who subsisted on a diet of dock leaves and grass, and gave all his goods to the poor. Martin Gardner refers to Tenniel basing his drawing on Theophilus Carter, who owned a furniture shop in Oxford, though also detailing other candidates. Carter was mentioned in a letter to The Times from the Reverend Gordon W Baillie: ‘All Oxford called him The Mad Hatter. He would stand at the door of his furniture shop…always with a top hat at the back of his head, which, with a well-developed nose and a somewhat receding chin, made him an easy target for the caricaturist.’
(John Tenniel, ‘A Mad Tea Party’)
Sharing with William Maxwell another helping of hat lore, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to him: ‘Your bedroom fireplace should have had a fire in it. When family pews meant anything, they had fireplaces in them, and the eldest son of the family poked them up before the sermon. At that date you never saw a gentleman on his knees. He remained seated & prayed into his hat. My poor father couldn’t, because if he went to church it was to the school chapel, dressed as such; and for some deep mystical reason you can’t pray into a mortar-board.’
Talking into your hat, that is, rather than talking through it.
 Philip Larkin, ‘Church Going’, Collected Poems, edited by Anthony Thwaite (East St Kilda: The Marvell Press and London: Faber, 2003), 58.
 David Garnett, The Flowers of the Forest (London: Chatto & Windus, 1955), 236.
 James Joyce, Dubliners (1914; introduction and notes by Terence Brown, London: Penguin Books, 2000), 84.
 Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘A Student of Obliteration’, an introduction to Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness, in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 299.
 Mollie Panter-Downes, London War Notes (1971; edited by William Shawn, new preface by David Kynaston, London: Persephone Books, 2014), 29.
 Alethea Hayter, A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (1965; London: Robin Clark 1992), 103-104.
 Francis Kilvert, Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969): I, 247.
 Julian MacLaren-Ross, Bitten by the Tarantula and other writings (London: Black Spring Press, 2005), 155.
 William Gaunt, The Aesthetic Adventure (1945; revised edition, London: Sphere Books, 1975), 10.
 Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 407.
 Hugh Kenner, Wyndham Lewis (New York: New Directions, 1964), 6.
 T. H. White, England Have My Bones (1934; London: Macdonald Futura, 1981), 42; Martin Gardner, The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition (Harmondsworth: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 2000), 72-73; The Times, March 19, 1931.
 Letter of 9 January 1972: Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 227.