The Hat Makes the Man

stingy-brim
Me in my leather coat and felt hat, which now has a new name.

The weather was cool as I entered an office building last week, so I was wearing my leather jacket and my black felt hat. As I walked past the lobby desk toward the elevators, the older gentleman at the desk called to me. I wasn’t sure what he said, so I stopped and asked him to repeat himself.

“I like your stingy brim!” he said.

I still didn’t get it, really. And asked him one more time.

“Your hat! We used to call that a stingy brim! You’re rockin’ that stingy brim!”

I’ve never heard that name, but I like it a lot. And it’s the sort of detail that, as a writer, you want to store away. A character of a certain age in a certain time and place – an older black man in New Orleans – might make a passing reference to “a stingy brim,” adding verisimilitude to a character and scene.

It’s the details that make the difference, that separate a generic scene to one that comes alive. And as a writer, you’ve got to be a sponge for them. The way kids talk today, the way your parents talked 30 years ago. You might wash your laundry in Tide. Your grandparents might have used Fels-Naptha. It’s a hundred different, little things, what James Kilpatrick called “the telling details,” the fix your story in a specific place and time. (And the fact that I referenced James Kilpatrick instead of “Grammar Girl” fixes me at a certain age, place and time.)

Most people, when they see you wearing a felt hat – any felt hat, as opposed to a sports cap – say, “I like your fedora!” That’s because fedora is the only word they know. But it’s only one style.

bogart
Bogart in his fedora.

Fedoras have a wide brim (usually turned down in front, up in back) and a pointed or tear-drop-shaped crease in the crown. It’s the go-to hat of film noir. You see Bogart wearing a fedora in “The Maltese Falcon” (one of my favorite movies) and a host of other films. You’ll see it on Richard Widmark and Robert Mitchum in all of those classics.

THE GODFATHER, Al Pacino, 1972 godfather1-fsc48(godfather1-fsc48)
Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in “The Godfather.”

But though the fedora is closely tied to our image of gangsters, the hat Al Pacino wears in the first “Godfather” is NOT a fedora. It’s a Homburg.

The Homburg has a narrowed brim (one might call it a “stingy brim.) The crown usually has a crease straight across, from front to back. It’s called a gutter crease. In the mid-20th century, the Homburg was the hat of politicians and statesmen and the upper class. You can see photos of Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, Konrad Adenauer and lots of others statesman wearing it.

I have two hats, the Homburg and my Panama. They’re my fall/winter hat and my spring summer hat. I particularly love my Homburg.

But of course, from now on, it’s my Stingy Brim.

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