Fedoras and Fashion Prescriptivism

As a sunburn-prone person who doesn’t drive, but walks everywhere, summer is a time when I think about hats.  I try to plan my day so that I don’t have to be out and about at midday, but sometimes these things are unavoidable, and as I roast in the sun I think, “if only I could wear a hat, something with a wide brim, to protect my neck and face.”  But I’m not quite ready to go full-on neo-Farmer Ben in order to wear a straw hat, and I don’t want to be a “hat guy” either.  Famously, hats ceased to be obligatory in the 60’s (they say it was JFK who killed the hat, but I say it was the automobile culture), and I sometimes believe that fashion obeys the dictum of the ants in The Once and Future King: ANYTHING NOT COMPULSORY IS FORBIDDEN.  Certainly, in the decades since the disappearance of the hat from the mainstream–perhaps especially since Raiders of the Lost Ark came out–hats that aren’t baseball caps or knit winter hats have accrued a range of meanings and associations.  For some people positive, but I think for more people negative.

This clash of tastes has recently resulted in some semi-notorious tumblrs: You Shouldn’t Wear That Fedora, Fedoras of OKC, and Fedoras: Forever Alone.  Their target is not really the Andre 3000s or even Justin Timberlakes of the world, but the more commonly-encountered fedora-wearing geek, who perhaps wears their hat with a Zelda T-shirt or long unkempt hair or a scruffy young-Tom-Waits goatee, with a smattering of frattish ‘dudebros’ mixed in there.  Naturally, I’m against this kind of Fashion Police nonsense, but after all, I literally suffer rather than associate myself with their targets, and I want to understand it.  (If the Internet had existed when I was in college, I might easily have been one of their targets: with a kind of sublime unconsciousness, I wore a Halloween-costume felt bowler hat thing throughout my freshman year, over long greasy hair dyed all kinds of colors, and wondered, of course, why the girls I liked never seemed interested in me.)  The “Forever Alone” tumblr features a kind of mission statement: “A fedora speaks volumes about one’s character. It implies that he is a basement dwelling, live action role playing, no social skills having, complete and utter geek in the worst sense of the word.”

Gaming journalist Leigh Alexander elaborates this thesis by introducing a new angle: “The problem is that the fedora has become a go-to accessory for a peculiar subculture of love-entitled male nerds whose social inexperience and awkwardness manifests in a world rocked by a gender revolution—a tectonic shift in the makeup of formerly cloistered, rule-bound clubs.”  She associates the fedora with the Nice Guy Syndrome, a feminist concept which is too valuable and therefore controversial/derailing for me to get into (click the link instead).  There was something about this that bugged me, though, and I got so into clicking around for more reactions that I ended up reading an unbelievably long comment thread on Metafilter, one of my least favorite sites of all time.  (My irrational pet hate.)  It was reading the increasingly strident recital of the Rules For Hats which put it together for me: this is fashion prescriptivism.

Since learning a little (in strictly amateur dilletante terms) about linguistics I’ve been convinced that fashion, in the macro “what people wear” sense, is very much like language, to the extent that I might even say that it is a subset of language.  Like human languages, it’s emergent and subjective–it bubbles up from the mass of humanity, rather than being handed down from above, and it’s completely meaningless without a human observer.  These facts about language do not prevent some people from getting incredibly angry at so-called “grammar mistakes” (rarely mistakes and rarely even grammar-related) and raging about them in an interesting, half classist, half quasi-moralist way.  People who use the singular they, or the passive voice, are not just ignorant but actively bad people.  There is an objectively right way to write and speak, determined by tradition and logic, and everything else is barbaric.  The rules they cling to, however, usually have no historical or logical validity, and the worth of neither an argument nor a person is determined by their use of “that” or “which”.  There are actual grammar “rules” for every language–in English, “Car the backed up did” is comprehensible but ungrammatical–but these rules are rarely ever broken and unconsciously followed by speakers of the language.

I think these Fashion Police things come from a similar anxiety about the Heraclitean river that is fashion.  I can think of a few “rules” of fashion comparable to (real) grammar “rules”–don’t wear shoes on your hands, don’t walk around with your dick hanging out–but everything else is, intolerably enough, just a matter of taste.  You can invent rules about stripes and patterns, brown socks and black socks, width of tie and width of lapel, but all these “rules” only come down to “this looks good/bad to me“, and, even more intolerably, what looks good to you today is not what will look good to you in the future.  Like slang (I say fashion is a kind of language, but really, being a clothes person, I believe language is a kind of fashion) it will come and go.  That’s what makes fashion exciting.  Still, quasi-moral character judgements are constantly heaped on people who dress in a way displeasing to the judge, whether the abject conformity of the “suit” or the decadent privilege of the hipster.  When not moral, the judgements are usually classist–“she looks cheap”, that kind of thing.  Just like prescriptivists snarling at the semi-literate rubes.  At its ugliest, it comes out in saying someone “dresses like a thug” or “speaks in ebonics”.

Of course there’s a lot of information encoded in our clothes.  As it is a kind of language, it communicates.  But I think the idea that someone who dresses in a way you don’t like is a bad person is a step too far, into a just-world fallacy kind of place.  It would be very convenient if villains were always ugly and good people always beautiful, but that of course is not the world we live in.

Alexander notes that at least some of the people hating on these hat-wearing geeks seem to be geeks themselves.  I think that possibly explains the vitriol; at any rate it explains why I don’t wear a hat.  At some point, I looked around me with a horrified recognition, like the hero of a tragedy by Sophocles: those guys who look so lame in their hats….I look like them!  I think, I hope, I’m getting old enough to give my little teenaged self a break about it, but for a long time the shame of that recognition kept me from almost any kind of sartorial adventures.  Now, at 33, looking at these tumblrs, reading these articles and comments, I find that the dorks in hats don’t look any better, but my fears of looking dorky have strangely evaporated.

Any change in personal style, if it comes from within, is always a good thing.  The winds of change are blowing through my life right now.  Perhaps, for all I know, they will bring hats with them.

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4 Comments

Filed under Thoughts on clothes

4 responses to “Fedoras and Fashion Prescriptivism

  1. kat

    i completely enjoyed reading this and have a lot to say in response, but i’ll just start with a few points:

    + a funny friend of mine once encapsulated “nice guy syndrome” as “dudes who fail at patriarchy but feel entitled to its benefits anyway.” whether or not that’s true (and i admit it’s not so nuanced), i thought it was pretty snappy.

    + i love hats and wish i could wear them consistently (and i own a few), but i always feel so costume-y. the truth is i rarely “accessorize” but sparingly, and a hat is often kind of too much unless it is practical for me. and i don’t have nowhere near the amount of “cultural baggage” associated with them in the way that fedoras seems to have with geek subcultures. (though, it is true, i’m pretty geek all around.)

    + i hate fashion policing and just more often think, ‘who cares if someone doesn’t dress the way you think they should?’ wlil the world come to an end? will people die of hunger? no? then who cares! and, i have no problem with fedoras and i don’t think tom waits is such a bad look to emulate. but i do associate cabbie hats worn with a bowling shirt with a certain stripe of fellow in san francisco and i can’t seem to shake my impulse to giggle out of my mind when i see this look. it’s so “Swingers”! “Swingers” was a long time ago!

    • Fashion Policing is, I really believe, a scourge on the world. When you mention the word “accessorizing”, for example, I find my mind shutting up into a defensive shell, because of hearing so much criticism of stars on the red carpet and so on over the years. When I’m designing a costume, it feels much less fraught, so I can use a more poetic ‘it feels right’ sense without anxiety; but in real life, it almost seems not worth it to try. (Project Runway blogs, for example, tend to dismiss things as “straight man’s taste” when it comes to the token straight guy’s accessorizing/styling. Paralyzing!)

      I’m glad you enjoyed this entry, as I was writing it I was thinking, “there’s just too much stuff in here for a blog entry, who’s going to read all this?”

  2. Im so glad this blog is in my reader. Fashion/language: yess.

    On the whole (this is subjective and unmeasured but I FEEL it) I find that structured hats flag unconfidence like little else; if you are not 100% on wearing that hat.. Do more practise in private or shake hands with visible anxiety. I break this rule, and I regret it, but not too much.

    • I know what you mean. Generally speaking most of us go through our days without people paying much attention to our clothes. Something like a big hat will be noticed, so unless you’re sure you want to be noticed, your worst fears can kick in when everyone is looking at you.

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