Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Whither the Derby?

Before we begin our exploration of the Derby, let us consider its significance.

“Why?” you ask. “It’s just a funny hat that nobody wears anymore, not even bankers in England.”*

*This statement is, of course, wrong on two counts. First, any self-respecting English banker would wear a Bowler (made in England) rather than a Derby (made in America), and second, there ARE reports that some bankers in Great Britain do still wear Bowlers.

True, the Derby is rarely seen in public these days, yours truly and a few die-hard Derby fans notwithstanding. But look at photographs from the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth, and what do you see? Derbies on nearly every male head, in most cases. The Derby was everywhere, the most ubiquitous piece of headwear in its day, a “day” that lasted seventy years, give or take. And somewhat paradoxically, it is the Derby’s very ubiquity that makes it very unique.

The Derby is perhaps the most democratic and egalitarian hat of all time. It was the first hat to be classless; that is, it transcended all social classes. In America, it became de rigueur business attire for the upper classes, but it didn’t stop there. The Derby was adopted by the burgeoning middle class in the late-nineteenth century, and eventually by the working class here in America. No matter your station in life, it was considered proper headwear for all men; financiers and bankers, factory owners and factory managers, shopkeepers and store clerks, railroad workers and miners, all were avid wearers of the Derby. The rest of your clothing might tell the story of your life, but the Derby marked you as one thing only – an American male. Any man could, and did, wear the Derby. Indeed, not just the symbol of any man, the Derby became the symbol of Everyman. It is not coincidence that early comic actors like Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, and Charlie Chaplin adopted the Derby as part of their costumes. These famous funny men represented Everyman, and no hat represented Everymen better than the Derby. If Matt Groening had been born a century earlier, Homer Simpson would regularly sport a Derby.

Why was the Derby so ubiquitous?

The Derby was a product and beneficiary of the Second Industrial Revolution. The hat industry as a whole benefited from this second wave of industrialization, which started around the mid-nineteenth century and lasted until World War I. As with most industries, hat factories made good use of the American System of Manufacturing, but division of labor, standardization of parts, and mechanization of production only went so far in hat-making. Many processes were still done by hand in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, and it wouldn’t be until later in the century that the remaining processes that could possibly be mechanized in hat production were turned over to skilled operators using machines. As we’ll see in the next installment, much of the work that went into Derbies was done by hand, much more so than in the soft felt hats that eventually supplanted them.

The upshot of all of this is that hat factories were able to turn out increasing quantities of higher-quality hats in a far shorter amount of time than had been possible before the mid-nineteenth century, when hat “factories” generally consisted of a master hatter and one or two apprentices. Hat prices were affordable, and any man who considered himself upwardly mobile, regardless of his current social standing, wanted a fine piece of headwear from these respected hat companies. In general, the Second Industrial Revolution lifted the wages and improved the living conditions of all workers across the social spectrum. Hat factories were successfully turning out thousands to tens of thousands of Derbies per month to meet the consumer demand for them.

This brings me to my final point on the significance of the Derby. The Derby was the first piece of headwear to meet the criteria of mass culture. Mass culture is, generally speaking, a single, almost monolithic consumption culture appealing to a population across the social and geographic spectrum. Prior to the evolution of mass, or popular, culture, culture was regional in nature – that is, people living in the Northeast had their own culture, people living in the South had their own culture, there was a Midwestern Culture, and a Western one, as well. These regional differences could probably be broken down further. There was also high culture, including such things as opera and classical music, art, ballet, and literature, all things in which the upper classes indulged their senses. Opposing it was low culture. Low culture appealed, in general, to the lower classes, and included such amusements as minstrel shows, vaudeville, burlesque, dime novels, and (gasp!) jazz.

Mass culture evolved with the advent of mass forms of communication, from newspapers, to magazines, to film and radio, and finally, to television, all forms that distributed ideas of consumption to the masses. These communication technologies developed a national audience that transcended older regional differences and contributed to an increasing homogeneity in American life, a homogeneity that, far from being detrimental, helped to develop a sense of national identity. It didn’t matter if you were from New York or New Mexico, from Michigan or Mississippi, or just off the boat from Ireland or Italy, these technologies let you participate in a new mass culture that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and let you feel like you had something in common with everyone else.

In the case of the Derby, we’ve discussed how it was adopted across class lines. It was also adopted across regional lines and could be found nearly everywhere one traveled throughout America. There were probably more Derbies in the American West than there were John B. Stetson’s famous “Boss of the Plains” hat and its cousins. This ubiquity was accomplished without the technological achievements of film, radio, and television, which are usually most associated with mass culture.

This just leaves us with newspapers and magazines. It is no mere coincidence that the Derby reached the peak of its popularity around the turn of the century, at the same time that hat manufacturers began moving from regional advertising in newspapers to national advertising in magazines such a McClure’s, Collier’s Weekly, and The Saturday Evening Post, all magazines with a national reach. The growth that America’s hat manufacturers experienced in the early years of the twentieth century were due, in large part, to this move to national advertising. The Derby went right along with it as the standard hat of America, until it fell from favor around 1930. But that is another story.

Suffice it to say, the Derby was the first hat to participate in the nascent popular culture. Derbies were, to their period in history, as denim blue jeans are to our period of history - worn by all, from presidents to paupers, and nearly everyone in between. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to don my Derby and run to the library.


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