Hats and Top Coats: Unsung Casualties of Car Culture

early_fixie.jpg What we wear or don’t wear — fashion, that is — tells a lot about how we live, including how we get around.

Take the hat, for example. The wonderful broad-brimmed, high-peaked bowlers, boaters, derbies and fedoras worn by men, and the even more extensive variety worn by women, some with precarious architectural acrobatics. What happened to them? Why did they generally disappear?

The answer is the car. In the 1950s and 1960s, as most people began to drive almost everywhere, wearing any kind of hat that sat tall on one’s head just no longer worked. Think about it.

If you’re wearing a fedora or a Sunday bonnet and you step into a car, what happens to the hat? It hits the roof. You have to take it off. Where do you put it? On the seat beside you. But someone may be sitting there. And so on. The hat becomes a superfluous, a dead appendage, rather than an envied accessory.

So people stopped wearing them. Plus, they weren’t as necessary practically. If you’re driving everywhere, you don’t need a hat to keep your head warm just to walk across the parking lot. If you had to have some head warmth, you wore the utilitarian hood or cap.

RIP, the hat.

Another fashion item endangered by the automobile, but not quite dead, is the top coat, that tube of wool or cashmere that stretches from neck to calves, and which is worn by both men and women. You still see quite a lot of them around New York City, but that’s because we still walk.

A top coat is a wonderful accessory for wintertime urban walking. So bedecked, one has protection across one’s waist and legs against the cold wind, and one paints an imposing and more beautiful silhouette. For both men and women, a top coat slims and shapes.

But the car has shrunk the habitat of the topcoat. Step into an automobile wearing a top coat, as I sometimes do, and something practical converts itself into something cumbersome. The long hems of the jacket drag on the floor, and the belt and folds get caught in the door unless one is careful. It’s a hassle, and like the hat, not really necessary because if you’re driving, you’re not walking much anyway.

One of the pleasures for me of living in New York City is that I get to wear my long black top coat a lot.

So it was with some dismay that I realized that urban cycling, something I have been doing more of as late, may not mesh with wearing a top coat. Would I have to choose between two loves?

As I have said in previous posts, I like the idea that bicycling can be elegant and urbane, separated from sweaty, sports-oriented cycling. So, wearing a top coat while riding would fit right in with that. If it worked.

I gave it a try the other day. It didn’t, at least not very well.

For one, the long folds risked being caught in the gears and tires. This is partly because my bicycle lacked chain guards and fenders, as so many do here in the city. But even if I were to trade in my begrimed mountain bike for a more urbane one, it still might not work well, wearing a top coat. I either had to sit on the top coat, or let the bottom half of the jacket spill around the seat and top part of the back wheel. That might work with fenders, or might not.

On the plus side, I did cut a nice figure, if I do say so myself. When I caught glimpses of myself in store windows, I saw this monk-like form gliding past, my semi-bald head poking out of this long robe. To name a different, more manly comparison, I at times felt like those dangerous villains in The Long Riders, that pretty good Western starring the Carradines, the Keaches and other brothers, who always wore those long dusters as they rode horses and robbed banks.

But getting back to the minuses, another problem was simply color. Most top coats are black, including mine. And as I road home from Union Square to Prospect Heights in Brooklyn at 5 p.m., and thus in the pitch dark, I quickly realized I was just about invisible due to my sartorial choice. True, I did have several flashers attached to my body and bike, but I didn’t like the fact that the rest of me was black. What to do?

I’m not sure. I may ride again, top coated, or I may leave it at home. I like being able to wear it, once I dismount. One should be able to walk off a bicycle and into say, an elegant party, wearing a topcoat over say a nice suit or dress. But it may take some work.

— Alex Marshall, The Conscious Commuter

Flickr Photo: JEKemp

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    But getting back to the minuses, another problem was simply color. Most top coats are black, including mine. And as I road home from Union Square to Prospect Heights in Brooklyn at 5 pm, and thus in the pitch dark, I quickly realized I was just about invisible due to my sartorial choice. True, I did have several flashers attached to my body and bike, but I didn’t like the fact that the rest of me was black. What to do?

    They do sell lighter-colored coats. As a bonus, a friend who’s a social worker told me that they’re perfect for hitchhiking: he always found a ride when wearing a light-colored trench coat and a briefcase.

  • elgin

    Here’s more bicycle fashion inspiration:

    http://thesartorialist.blogspot.com/search/label/Bicycles

  • karissimah

    The vision of a man biking in a long dark coat is something to behold! I applaud your experiment. If only it weren’t so dangerous.

  • mfs

    For most of the last millenium, hats and wigs were usually a signifier of class. Good riddance, I say.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith
  • anon

    I always ride in a long black coat when I bike in NYC in the winter. Just get fenders and a chain guard. No big deal. And powerful lights.

    I’ve found that drivers respect me more when I look more prim than if I’m dressed like a slob. Put your briefcase prominently on display in your basket, and be sure that you’re riding pretty upright (get a cruiser if you have a sports bike).

  • fdr

    It has long been accepted that men stopped wearing hats in the early 60s because JFK didn’t wear them. Nothing to do with cars.

  • BicyclesOnly

    Alex,

    Just lift your leg over the top rail without getting on the seat, then lift yourself back onto the seat. Depending upon the vent of the overcoat, you will either have it nicely tucked under your bottom and out of harm’s way, or (with longer vents) the tails will fall to either side, still (for the most part) free of the wheels and chain. If it is a very long overcoat like the kind you are talking about, you can fold it up a bit under your bottom so that it does not fall all the way down by the chain.

    I often wear my overcoat when bicycling; you can’t wear a parka over a suit. The only time there is a problem is in wet or mudy weather; then the overcoat gets trashed.

  • Calf-length coats are a bit of a pain when trying to sit on the subway too. (Admittedly, I don’t wear mine often enough to get really good at it.)

  • paulb

    A bike with a step-through frame will make it easier, too.

    It’s odd the comment on hats. For my money, bike helmets are the stupidest looking headgear ever invented. I hate them. And they are almost compulsory.

  • Joe

    I have to respectfully disagree with the author regarding hats: the notion that hat wearing declined due to automobile roof heights is a fallacy. Auto manufacturers were simply catering to the tastes and demands of their consumer. Compulsory and widespread hat wearing was on the decline after 1930, due to combination of several factors – increased prevalence of central heating, JFK (although to a lesser degree than assumed,as he was just following the trend of his generation), the rise of the youth culture and anti-establishment mores of the late 1960’s.

    To say that auto roof heights caused a decline in hat wearing is like saying today that the fact that auto manufacturers don’t put ashtrays in autos by default caused a decline in public smoking. It didn’t…they were following the trend.

  • Vroomfondel

    If cars and traditional headwear don’t go together, how do you explain the unabated popularity of ten-gallon hats in the South?

  • Joe

    Ten-gallon hats have remained popular in the south because of tradition, yet I see no connection with cars in that example. Maybe you’re alluding to the popularity of trucks in the south? That’s for a myriad of reasons – the utility of such vehicles in transporting goods and pulling stuff, pride in the ownership of an archetypically ‘manly’ vehicle, etc.

  • Dan

    Joe,

    JFK and his hatlessness represented the very same modern, streamlined, sexy, aerodynamic future promised by the automobile of the early ’60s. Americans weren’t wearing cowboy hats and riding horses to the New Frontier. They were driving there, hatless. I think Alex is on to something.

    As to Vroomfondel and his 10-gallon hat F-150 driving Texans… they’ve always been a culture unto themselves anyway and, for that matter, they shot JFK. They don’t count.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    I think Alex is still onto something here even if his explanations are maybe not grounded in absolute truth.

    I’ve been saying for a couple of years now that the reason why American’s dress like slobs is that we use our cars as status symbols now more so than our cloths. What’s a nice pair of shoes or slacks if all one can see of you in public is from the shoulder up as you drive your car. We literally wear our cars in this country.

    When I got visit family back in Europe people tend to dress very nicely (well not always in where my family is from, Germans tend to lack fashion sense but not as bad as here). Anyway, there are so many places there to walk to and wonderful inviting public squares to people watch. Such an environment I believe encourages people to dress well themselves for when they are “seen”.

    New York tends to be an anomaly in the US since so many people walk around town much like in Europe.

    Just a theory that’s probably easily proven wrong but I like to think that there is some element of truth to it.

    Oh yeah. As for mfs comment back at #4. Hats are really cool and add so much style and character to whomever is wearing them, male or female.

  • Hi, I’m Rags

    I said for years that I would not change the way I dress for the bicycle, but I relented and now wear a pea coat rather than a long coat.

    Nother problem with the long coat’s that there’s nowhere to put it in a restaurant.

    But Mr. Marshall, I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned that Dutch bikes have a guard on the rear fender specifically for keeping your coat out of the spokes.

    Regard:
    http://tinyurl.com/2q6nos

  • Vroomfondel

    Joe, Dan, I guess my attempt at comedy fizzled. I shouldn’t be surprised — being German, I know I’m genetically humor-impaired. Adding insult to injury, Andy B informs me that I lack fashion sense, too. I’ll go cry myself to sleep now. Good night, everybody…

  • Bill

    There’s a book on JFK’s hatlessness: Hatless Jack: The President, the Fedora, and the History of American Style by Neil Steinberg. It also tells the weird story of NYC’s hat riots, when gangs would beat up people who were wearing straw hats too late in the year (as an excuse for their attacks, sometimes the gangs would falsely state that the date on which people were supposed to stop wearing summer hats, which was actually published in the papers, had been moved up).

  • t

    Wait…another essay by Marshall that relies on a gut feeling rather than verifiable research? Why am I not surprised? Why does Streetsblog continue to give a platform to someone whose essays, while well meaning, are so regularly ill-conceived and impropery sourced? This is a fairly innocent enough subject — certainly cars have influenced fashion and there’s no question that fashions in walkable cities are different than fashions in sprawling suburbs — but I guess Marshall can’t both to do even a Wikipedia search before submitting this light essay. The JFK story is the stuff of legend, yet warrants no mention here. His essays read like junior high school book reports from someone who only read half the book.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Woops! I’m sorry Vroomfondel. I wasn’t thinking. You know I didn’t mean anything personal from my comment. I’m just about as German one can be for an American boy myself.

    I love the sharp lines of German fashion for both men and women. I’ve got to confess that I’ve almost crashed my bike a number of times while riding in Munich because I was admiring the ladies on their bikes a little too much. Unfortunately its just that too many Germans wear really funky stuff thats just a little too wacky for my personal taste.

    Still the average German is well beyond the average American when it comes to fashion sense anyway.

    Plus have you been home lately and seen what’s going on in bicycle planning? The Dutch and Danish better watch out! I’m always amazed by the major advances I see when I go back every two years are so.

    Peace,
    Andy B

  • Steve Pinkus

    I couldn’t agree more with Alex on the impact of the private automobile on the general decline of men’s fashions and subsequent expansion of the waistline among other negative side-effects.

    A group of us in DC have started a hat movement in order to bring attention to the impact of cars on our urban environments.

    Everyone ought to visit JJ Hat Center on 32nd and 5th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan and get one of their top quality hats and wear it proudly!

    — Steve

  • Vroomfondel

    Don’t worry, Andy, I’m not offended at all. I actually got a good chuckle out of your post.

    As for bicycle planning in Germany, I hardly notice because city planners have been implementing traffic-calming measures for at least twenty years or so. I remember a popular cartoon making fun of “traffic-calmed ghettos” when I was in high school.

    Moreover, traffic was never a concern of mine when I was living in Germany because virtually all drivers in Germany respect bikers. I can think of lots of reasons for this: We all go through serious bicycle safety training in elementary school, so that we grow up to be drivers with an appreciation of biking concerns. Driving instructors drill respect for bikers into their students — leave at least five feet of space when passing a bike, look over your shoulder before making a right turn, etc. Finally, there’s safety in numbers — lots of people ride bikes; some university towns have more bikes than inhabitants (leading to unbelievable bike parking problems). I’ve biked many miles on major highways without ever feeling threatened.

    I have to say, though, that I rather enjoy biking in New York. Yelling at cabbies and pounding on vans can be exhilarating. Having always been on the conservative side, I’m getting a kick out of my new persona of two-wheeled rebel.

    Hmm, I guess that was way off-topic. Sorry about the threadjack…

  • BicyclesOnly

    Vroomfondel,

    Good point–calmed traffic is, well, calm. There is an excitement to riding in NYC now that I hope to be able to look back on nostalgically as a kind of halcyon “wild west” era in city traffic.

    Alex,

    Here’s a photo of a guy in a topcoat I saw bicycling yesterday. It looks like his small-wheeled bicycle solves the problem you are talking about.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/bicyclesonly/2119906475/in/photostream/

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