Porkpie hats have woven a zig-zaggy path through sartorial history. The story of these iconic hats is filled with unexpected twists and fascinating origins that span across different eras and cultures.
From Modest Beginnings to Iconic Style
Imagine Walter White’s villainous alter-ego Heisenberg, known for his distinctive pork pie hat. Surprisingly, the first wearers of pork pie hats were American and British ladies in the 1830s. These demure little round hats featured narrow, sometimes curled-up brims and short flat crowns. Adorned with a small feather or bow on one side, they exuded charm and elegance.
The name “porkpie” was derived from the shape and crease of the crown, resembling the Melton Mowbray pork pie, a delicious pastry invented in Leicestershire around 1760. In those early days, fox hunters on the go would indulge in this chubby pie, carefully crimped to prevent any leakage.
Resurfacing in the 20th Century
In the late 1880s, the porkpie hat made a comeback, becoming a favorite among British men-about-town. However, it eventually fell out of fashion, only to resurface in the 1920s in the United States. Comedian Buster Keaton played a pivotal role in popularizing the hat by creating unique versions from Stetsons, which he skillfully “chopped” and stiffened using sugar water. Over his lifetime, Keaton crafted over a thousand of these distinct toppers. He favored Stetsons for their affordability and their willingness to sacrifice themselves to the demands of the silver screen.
The Heyday and Famous Wearers
Arguably, the heyday of the pork pie hat occurred during the Great Depression. The hat regained its snap brim and slightly increased in height during this era. Frank Lloyd Wright, the renowned architect, sported a porkpie hat with a wide brim and a rather tall crown, adding a touch of sophistication to his ensemble. Icons like him contributed to the enduring popularity of this unique headwear.
Another legendary figure associated with the porkpie hat is Lester Young, the extraordinary saxophone player. Charles Mingus paid tribute to him through his composition “Goodbye Porkpie Hat.” Young’s porkpie hat had a broader brim, reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, but retained the signature short, flat, creased crown that defines the style.
The porkpie hat also became a symbol in African American culture during the 1940s. Flashy, feathered, and color-coordinated versions of the hat were associated with the zoot suit, a trend that even reached New Guinea by 1944.
Cultural Influence and Pop Culture Appearances
The porkpie hat’s influence extended beyond the world of fashion. It found a place in popular culture, making memorable appearances in movies and TV shows. Art Carney’s portrayal of Ed Norton in The Honeymooners showcased the hat as the perfect expression of a snide wiseacre.
In the 1960s, the hat made its way to Jamaica and became popular within the “rude boy” subculture. From there, it traveled back to the UK, where it emerged as a trend among ska and dub circles, leaving an indelible mark on music history.
On the Silver Screen
The porkpie hat also made its mark in the movies. Gene Hackman’s character, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, sported one in The French Connection. Interestingly, the real-life inspiration for Doyle, Eddie Egan, was well-known for his affinity for pork pie hats. He even refused to relinquish his beloved hat to Hackman during the film’s production. Around the same time, Robert De Niro wore a porkpie hat in Mean Streets, the same hat he had worn during his audition for the film.
A Contemporary Twist
While the porkpie hat carries a certain air of nostalgia and tradition, it continues to evolve and find relevance in modern times. One notable contemporary figure with a signature porkpie hat is Marcus Miller, the phenomenally talented bass player. His love for the hat demonstrates its timeless appeal and enduring popularity.
The journey of the porkpie hat encompasses not only fashion history but also cultural shifts and the influence of iconic figures. From its humble beginnings to its current status as a symbol of style and individuality, the porkpie hat remains an ever-present and ever-evolving accessory for those who appreciate its classic charm.
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