In Defense of Nice Hats
Commentary: Why Society Doesn't Wear Nice Hats... And Why Catholics Should
As our modern world finds itself growing more and more secular and further and further from God, we find ourselves in need of many things: greater joy, virtue, purpose and meaning in suffering, and hope for the hereafter. We are also in serious need of nicer hats. The feast of Sts. James and Philip, the patrons of hatters, seems a fitting time to reflect on this serious societal problem and commit to wearing nicer hats.
The feast of the Apostles Sts. Philip and James the Lesser is celebrated on May 1 in the traditional calendar and May 3 in the new calendar. Relatively little is known about both of them. St. James seems to have begun his ministry early. Called by Our Lord as an apostle, he immediately began working for the conversion of others. He went to find Nathanael and told him that he believed they had found the one of whom the prophets spoke. When Nathanael responded with doubt and perhaps even contempt, wondering if anything good could come from Nazareth, Philip merely told him, “come and see” (John 1:44-46). After Jesus’ Resurrection, he continued to preach the Gospel until he was eventually crucified and stoned to death, possibly as punishment for converting the wife of a Roman proconsul around 80AD.
The saints are given us as examples, models and helpers for our natural as well as spiritual needs. St. Joseph is the patron saint of workers and carpenters, St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost items, and. St. Jude of impossible causes. St. Philip is the patron saint not only of cooks and bakers, but again, importantly for our modern age, hatters.
Though the reason for St. Philip’s designation as a patron of hatters may be unclear, one thing is certain: modern man wears ugly hats. Along with our unfortunate love affair with sweatpants, leggings, and jeans for all occasions, our taste in hats has become abysmal. The baseball cap has taken over as the all-purpose non-winter hat. This, of course, is when one bothers to wear a hat at all.
Of course, with hats gone, we’ve also witnessed a total decline in hat etiquette. Men no longer take off their hats to a woman, or when entering a building. Doffing the hat is a lost art. What this really represents, of course, along with the increasing normalcy of sweatpants, leggings, and jeans, is the triumph of the casual. This is at least partly because of an epicurean tendency to prioritize personal comfort above all else.
The great shame of this, of course, is that Catholics have always worn varied and nice hats. Entertainers like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra wore a variety of hats, with Sinatra being often commonly photographed in a tilted fedora.
Nor did Catholic priests miss out on the hatting action. They often wore birettas at Mass and worship. A mere handful of priests still do so today.
For non-worship occasions, priests might have ventured out wearing the Saturno or cappello romano, useful as practical outerwear. And finally, the Pope had a number of options at his disposal, such that the expression, “Does the Pope wear a funny hat?” came to denote utter certainty. The Pope had not only one funny hat, but many, varied, and delightful funny hats.
With such a wide array of examples and options before them, why have Catholics generally followed the trends of broader society? This is not to deny the baseball cap its place, anymore than one need deny that sweatpants have their place. For the baseball cap, that place is on the baseball field, for sweatpants, the gym; for leggings,
in the trash under a skirt.
In brief, reclaiming nice hats is about more than nice hats; it’s about reclaiming some semblance of ceremony or ritual, the sense that at least in some places and some circumstances, we shouldn’t be too casual. There is a place for ceremony, in churches most of all, perhaps, but even in our daily lives. There is nothing stopping a priest from putting on a biretta any more than there is stopping an ordinary man from wearing a fedora, panama, trilby, or newsie. Why should our ordinary society be dominated by the cult of the casual?
Better hats can be a part of a deliberate choice to dress a little better, to show a little more respect to a person or place, to elect for a modest ornament (while avoiding vanity). With the range of options before us, for the priest and laymen, it is time to reclaim our heritage. It is time to strike a blow against the casual and the ugly. It is time to wear nicer hats.
Sts. Phillip and James, pray for us.