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Hats and Top Coats: Unsung Casualties of Car Culture

12:16 PM EST on December 17, 2007

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

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