Legend has it that John F Kennedy killed a good thing when he became the first president in US history not to wear a hat during his inauguration. Although this is a great story, it is not true. Kennedy wore a hat before taking the oath as well as after. During his nearly 14 minutes at the podium, however, JFK was hatless.
It was a bitterly cold day 51 years ago this Friday and what the American media was soon to dub Camelot was about to begin. An important fashion era, however, had just ended. After 1,364 words, an age if not of innocence then certainly of sensibility, had drawn to a close. The hat as part of daily attire had become tired. Kennedy's hatless speech set a new trend and the biggest victim was the day's more common hat - the fedora.
For my money, the fedora represents an age of elegance that modern society has not been able to recapture. Modern man is better off today when it comes to equality, humanity towards his fellow man, health care, human rights and, in general, a higher standard of living for many but certainly not for all. But it is the little things that have slipped out of fashion as societies develop.
As the fedora died out so, too, did a level of courtesy that was once easily extended from the male sex to the fairer sex. No longer was it necessary for a gentleman to tip his hat when acknowledging the presence of a lady; no more was it required for a man of means to remove his hat when introduced to a woman - for the man no longer had his hat! Society had become a little more common and a little less formal.
Immediately after the US Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren had sworn in the 35th president of the United States, a new period in western history had begun. In his speech, in which he challenged his fellow countrymen - "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" - JFK was looking ahead to a future of civil rights and space travel; he was not looking back to the art of the milliner. Inspired by the chapeau worn by the heroine in Victorien Sardou's play titled Fédora, the fedora was practical. It protected the head from wind, rain and snow (almost half of total body heat is lost through the head when not wearing a hat).
Today, despite the best intentions of Johnny Depp and Billy Zane (two modern men doing their best to bring back the symbol of sophistication), the fedora is seen as impractical, pedantic and excessive. When it was introduced in 1882, it was the antithesis of those three qualities.
Michael Jabri-Pickett is the news editor at The National. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org