When you were little, your mom told you not to leave the house without one.
In school, your teachers always told you to take yours off.
Later in life, you may employ one to conceal certain worrisome deficiencies up top.
Right now, though, you should wear a hat because, well, you can’t consider yourself a 21st-century man of style without one. For the record, I’m not saying you should always wear a hat, nor am I contending that the well-worn Pirates baseball cap you (and by “you” I mean “I”) like to wear on Sunday mornings constitutes proper headgear.
No, I’m talking about a proper felt fedora.
Now, fedora doesn’t have to mean the creased-and-rigid number that you associate with the silver-screen hits of the forties, though it may certainly be that. It can be as simple as a felt hat with a crown and a brim. It can be soft and unconstructed, or it can be creased and pinched, like the aforementioned Joseph Cotten signature.
Let me share with you my recent quest for the perfect grown-up chapeau.
I started with an image. One which—minus the polka-dot shirt (though that was kind of cool, too, now that I think of it)—I couldn’t shake after watching Bob Dylan perform in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. I loved the way he took a classic hat shape and molded it into his own, inimitable, eccentrically Dylan-esque style. If you ask me, there’s a lot to be learned from the devil-may-care way he dressed down what was then still a sign of Establishment squareness. And don’t get me started on how guys like Keith Richards and Dennis Hopper put their own spin on classic fedoras.
So you start with an image. But even so, the sheer variety of options confronting you can be overwhelming. When I breached the doors of J.J. Hat Center in Manhattan several months ago, I found myself standing, slack-jawed, eyes moving from hat to hat, trying to hone in on what attracted me most. I struck up a conversation with one of the gentlemen there, and I’m not going to lie to you, clever and bright passengers now riding shotgun on my experience: He took one look at my healthy beard and proceeded to show me a low-quality, if highly-affordable, first pass.
It had no soul. It had no bounce. No Dylan-esque swagger. And although it was cheap, I would be sick of it immediately and most certainly never wear it.
So I asked him to start again, now specifying more clearly that we were not basing this sale on price, but quality, and a certain timeless elegance that would rumple and tarnish gloriously and get better with age.
Within minutes we were on the right track. I was handling beautifully-made Borsalinos that were aching for me to prop them just above my brow. And after trying on several more conventional models, my eyes landed on what I knew immediately was the one. Charcoal gray with a chocolate brown grosgrain ribbon; made from rabbit fur. (These were evil rabbits, I assure you.) What’s more, the hat is entirely collapsible, which means it can quickly and easily be rolled up and dispatched to your jacket pocket when its services are no longer required.
The salesman had me try on a size, and it felt just right. So I went with one size bigger—7 1/8 as opposed to 7. This allowed the hat to sit just slightly lower, which I prefer. I was beaming, feeling the stoke of finally finding something exactly as I had wanted it. As I shelled out for it at the register, I wasn’t thinking about the cost, but about how long it would last if I took good care of it. And how much I’ll enjoy wearing it in the meantime. If that’s not the definition of an essential, what is?
Aaron Levine designs menswear for Club Monaco. Click through this slideshow if you’re curious as to how he looks in his rabbit-fur fedora.