Alyce Cornyn-Selby runs The Hat Museum out of a historic, 100-year-old house in Portland, Oregon. In this interview, she talks about collecting men’s hats and clears up some popular misconceptions about cowboy hats and other headwear. She can be reached via the museum’s website, www.thehatmuseum.com.
We have more than a thousand hats here at The Hat Museum. It’s the largest hat museum in the United States, and has twice as many hats as the Hat Works museum in England. Our collection comes from private collections, vintage clothing stores, estate sales, antique shows, hat shops, catalogs, other museums, and donations. We’ve given by-appointment tours of the house for 17 years.
We started with about 600 hats in 2005. It was a fairly complete collection when we opened. We have acquired more hats as we’ve filled in the little gaps here and there. We don’t ask people to donate, but we’ve had some amazing donations.
We’re located inside a historic house in the middle of the historic district known as Ladd’s Addition. Everybody who has ever owned this house has been a hat nut. Because of that curious coincidence, the house was chosen to be on the HGTV program “If Walls Could Talk.” The Reingolds, who ran a famous jewelry store in downtown Portland, owned it originally. It turns out that Mrs. Reingold was a trained milliner—she had apprenticed in Russia before moving here. I purchased the house in 1975.
I think I first became interested in men’s hats from old black-and-white movies—film noir, Humphrey Bogart. I also collect antique cars. Even if it’s a dumb plot and it’s a ridiculous movie, I still want to see it because I want to look at the vintage fashion. I want to look at the hats and the cars. The styling was so much better back then.
My favorite era for women’s hats, though, has to be the Edwardian period when hats were at their largest. For a while, hats just kept getting bigger and bigger. Today these hats are what people think of as the “Titanic”-style hats, or the hats in “My Fair Lady” in the Ascot horse-racing scene. The ’30s were also an excellent era for both men and women’s hats.
Anytime I leave home, I put on a hat. People have this idea that you have to be dressed up to wear a hat. They think only of what we call “church-lady” hats, fancy hats you’d wear to church. That’s completely wrong. I wear men’s style trilbies. The trilby is the most popular hat for young women today. It looks like a fedora, only the brim is shorter.
Wearing a hat gets to be a habit, as does not wearing a hat. I keep my hats by the back door. Before I get in my car, I grab a hat, pop it on, and I’m out the door.
Collectors Weekly: What’s the earliest men’s hat you have in the museum?
Cornyn-Selby: It’s a top hat from 1880, but we take visitors back 6,000 years in the men’s hat section of the museum. We explain the evolution of men’s hat styles, we describe felting, and we talk about the Mad Hatter, which is based in fact. Hatters did go mad because of the mercury they used in the process of making hats. They didn’t know it caused neurological damage. Many of them went insane and many others died.
In the new “Alice in Wonderland” movie with Johnny Depp, his fingers show signs of mercury poisoning. I know the film has gotten mixed reviews, but I thought it was terrific. His red hair also has basis in fact. When they put mercury on fur, it caused what was called carroting because it would temporarily turn the fur orange.
Collectors Weekly: Why did hatters use mercury?
Cornyn-Selby: They didn’t have electricity back then, which means they didn’t have electric clippers to shear off the fur. So, they would put mercury on the fur, which caused it to stand up and allowed the hatter to get more fur off of the pelt—you don’t use the skin to make felt, only the fur. Beaver fur was very expensive, and the animal was annihilated in Europe. One of the first economic reasons to come to the U.S. and Canada was to trap beaver for felt.
Stockport is where much of England’s hat industry was located. Evidently, the cemeteries around Stockport are contaminated with mercury from the rotting bones of dead hatters. Danbury, Connecticut, also had big hat factories. At one point they were cranking out a million hats a year. The widespread use of mercury caused an affliction called the Danbury shakes. They didn’t know what was causing it.
Mercury wasn’t banned from hat making until 1941 in the U.S., but they probably didn’t use as much of it by that time because hatters had better ways of getting fur off the pelts.
Collectors Weekly: When were felt hats first made?
Cornyn-Selby: Felting has been around for 5,000 or 6,000 years. The way felting started is interesting. There were no stores back then, so if you wanted something, you had to make it yourself. Shoes, for example, probably began as just a slab of leather tied to the feet with strings that wound up the legs. After a while that got a little uncomfortable, so they started pulling the wool off the sheep and putting it in their sandals as protection.
After you walk around like that on pulled wool, it gets compressed. The moisture, heat, and the pressure cause it to felt, which means the fibers cling to each other in a really tight-knit kind of a way. When you pull this mass out of your shoe, you’ve got a flat piece of felt. Then someone got the idea of wetting it and shaping it.
The first felt hats were made not too long after that. They were not so different from, say, a 1920s cloche-style hat. They’d drape this wool mess over a pot or over a large gourd. When it dried, you had a hat. It looks a little like a cloche or even a beanie.
Eventually people started felting outwards to create a brim. That dome shape with a flat brim was the hat for hundreds of years. Then the French started cocking the hat, which means you pull one side up. Stick a big plume in it, and you’ve got the Three Musketeers hat.
This is all covered at the museum. We’ve taken wool and put it over the pot. Visitors can put their hands on this wool hat and see how felt got started. If you pull two sides up, you get the Napoleon-style hat, the admiral-style hat or the Knights of Columbus. If you pull it up on three sides, it’s the Colonial-style hat or tricorne—the hat Benjamin Franklin wore. If you flatten it out, it’s still basically the same style hat.
People took hat wearing very seriously. In fact, when John Hetherington stepped out of his London hat shop in 1797 wearing the first top hat, it was such a big deal that that he was arrested for disturbing the peace.
Collectors Weekly: He was arrested for wearing a hat?
Cornyn-Selby: Yes. Some people liked the hat and cheered, but others didn’t and booed. It caused quite a commotion: Horses bolted; a kid was thrown into a wall and broke his arm. Hetherington was arrested and put in jail, but when he got out he had more hat orders than he could fill. The top hat has been with us ever since.
Collectors Weekly: How tall was that first top hat?
Cornyn-Selby: I don’t think anybody recorded the measurements on that particular hat—this all happened more than 200 years ago—but top hats in general can be quite tall. Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat was like 7 inches tall. When he put it on, he was more than 7 feet tall.
There are 14 different styles of top hats. The stovepipe, for example, looks exactly like a stovepipe. It’s straight up and down with a flat brim. Lincoln had four of them. Then there’s the coachman’s hat, which is a shorter version. In many cultures, the person with the tallest headpiece has the most power. So if you were a coachman, you didn’t want your top hat to be taller than the people you picked up. So the coachman’s hat is kind of a short version of the top hat.
There’s also a collapsible top hat, which was originally called a gibus, named after Antoine Gibus, who created it in 1823. It was also called the opera hat because you could collapse it when you went to the opera and put it on a little shelf under your seat. Americans have always called it the collapsible top hat. It’s an ingenious little mechanism that makes the hat pop like that.
Collectors Weekly: When did the top hat become associated with magicians?
Cornyn-Selby: It was in 1814. A Frenchman named Louis Comte was the first person to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Magicians often wore tuxedos, usually tails. So a top hat wasn’t all that unusual but they were very expensive.
When top hats were made out of beaver fur, they were so expensive that they’d actually be included in a person’s will. A silk top hat, on the other hand, cost 1/10th, sometimes 1/20th, of what a beaver-fur top hat cost.
After being hunted almost to extinction in Europe, the beaver was nearly wiped out in the U.S., too. This was between 1830 and 1840. The introduction of the silkworm basically saved the beaver from extinction in the U.S. and Canada. If it hadn’t been for the silkworm, the state of Oregon would’ve had to change its state animal from the beaver to something else.
An Englishman named Bota popularized the first silk top hats in the West. He had worn a beaver-fur felt top hat on a trip to China. He was there so long that the hat wore out. In order for him to have a hat to wear back home, a Chinese hat maker made a copy of his top hat out of silk. After Bota returned to England wearing this silk topper, English hatters started making them out of silk, but it didn’t really take off until Victoria’s husband, Albert, wore one. Back in those days, people followed what British royalty did and what they wore.
Collectors Weekly: What other types of hats came out of England?
Cornyn-Selby: The British Empire was the center of just about everything for a long time, and that meant fashion as well. Christie’s, a famous hat company in England, owned the patent on the cowboy hat. In fact, Stetson had to pay them a royalty. There was a big court case about it.
In 1850, William Coke went to Lock’s Hat Shop in downtown London—a 333-year-old family business today—and asked for a specially designed hat. The shop came up with the bowler. When they originally made the hat, it was very strong. You could almost stand on it—it was that stiff. The bowler was an immediate success, and it was much cheaper to make than a top hat.
The bowler is called the first democratic hat because a middle-class gentleman could afford to buy one of them new. The Earl of Derby, who was British royalty, wore a bowler hat on a trip to the U.S. The Americans looked at his nametag and said, “Derby.” That’s how the hat got its nickname. That’s where we get the name Kentucky Derby. The bowler hat and the derby are the same hat. For a while, it was a lot of people’s favorite hat. Even today, if you go to the financial district in England you’ll see bankers and financiers still wearing bowler hats.
Collectors Weekly: Did hats represent a wearer’s status?
Cornyn-Selby: Yes and no. Everybody wore hats: men, women, and children. It didn’t matter how rich or poor you were, people needed to protect their heads from dust and debris, especially Londoners. There was a lot of junk in the air. Hats weren’t just a fashion statement. It was considered bad hygiene to walk around outside without a hat. If you didn’t wear a hat, all that junk was going to get into your hair.
People in the Victorian Era washed their hair with either lye soap or a combination of borax and egg whites. Once you washed your hair, you wouldn’t be able to get a comb through it. Taking care of your hair a hundred years ago was a big chore.
It’s reported that some Victorians washed their hair only once a year. Women took care of their hair by brushing it 100 strokes every night. You may have seen that scene in the old movies. Sometimes people would put cornmeal in their hair and on their scalps and brush it out. That would get rid of some of the oil in the hair and make it nicer.
Shampoo didn’t come around until the 1930s, and it didn’t get really good until the ’40s and ’50s. Shampoo is the single most important thing to affect hat wearing. The better the hair care products got, the more you could afford to leave your hat behind. By the 1950s, when a lot of women stayed home and did housework, they’d tie their hair up in a bandana to keep the dirt out of it. You may have seen that look in the old “I Love Lucy” show—she’s got her hair done up with what looks like a big handkerchief. The reason is that women wanted the washing to last as long as possible because they didn’t have hair dryers.
You can literally change your attitude by what you put on your head. In the ’40s ’50s, if a woman got sad, depressed, angry, or fed up, there was no Prozac or Valium; there was no psychotherapist on every corner. No. She marched downtown to the local department store and bought herself a new hat. When I’m wearing a baseball cap I feel differently than when I’m wearing a big, flowery Edwardian-style hat. My perspective is changed.
The goofiest hats are for men. Have you seen those crazy hats with a couple of cans of beer and the tubes that come down so you can drink them, or the cheese hats of the Green Bay Packers? Men will put anything on their heads. With the baseball cap, you see them wearing it sideways and backwards. Men do all kinds of goofy things with hats.
In the Victorian Era, though, they were better behaved. A plain dome hat with a flat brim was especially popular with young men. They weren’t allowed to cock it; they had to wear it flat. The top hat was the most popular hat if you had any kind of money at all, the bowler came out in 1850, and then the straw boater appeared in the 1880s. Men wore them all.
Collectors Weekly: Were Victorian Era hats worn universally?
Cornyn-Selby: Not really, except in certain Western cultures. Other cultures made their own styles of hats with their available materials. For example, there were a lot of different types of straw hats around the world. The Native Americans in Northern California made hats out of pine needles. Up here in the Pacific Northwest, indigenous people made hats out of cedar bark.
“Stetson was not a Wild West guy, he was a Philadelphia businessman, and the cowboy hat was not an American invention.”
If you’ve ever been to Hawaii, you may have seen residents take those long, spear-like leaves and weave a Polynesian hat for themselves in under 10 minutes. The hats start out green, but gradually turn tan or brown. The shape is similar to a cowboy hat.
In Ecuador they have the abaca plant, which is used today to make Panama hats. The name is actually a misnomer. When men were working on the Panama Canal in the early 1900s, they’d come back to the U.S. with these wonderful, lightweight straw hats. They’d been in Panama, so everybody called them Panama hats, but the hats had all been made in Ecuador.
With every tribe in Africa, you’re going to see a different-shaped hat. People tied seashells to their hats so that as they turned their heads, it would dissipate the flies. That’s actually where the idea of fringe came from—it was something to keep the flies away because it would move.
Collectors Weekly: What styles were popular for men during the Edwardian era?
Cornyn-Selby: The top hat, bowler, and boater remained popular. It was also the beginning of the fedora. The other style would be a homburg. King Edward—he was Queen Victoria’s son—liked to go to Germany for spa treatments. He came back from one visit wearing this wonderful hat. He’d been in Homburg, so everybody called it a homburg. It was FDR’s favorite hat and also Winston Churchill’s. It’s sometimes called the Godfather hat. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot always wears a homburg.
Diane Keaton wore a hat in “Annie Hall” that became pretty famous. It was just an oversized bowler hat. The actual hat was auctioned off about six or seven years ago.
In fact, women are wearing men’s hats more than ever before. You see Britney Spears wearing the trilby, which is a small hat. They can be made out of just about anything, from fabric to straw. I’ve got a velvet one. The trilby is probably the most popular hat for both men and women today.
It’s an easy hat to wear. Frank Sinatra’s favorite hat was the trilby. It looks really good on both men and women, especially if it’s worn to the side at an angle. It was named after a short story, “Trilby,” that became a play. It’s a pretty versatile hat. You can wear it dressed up or dressed down. Most people wear it very casually.
I love wearing men’s vintage fedoras, about 50-year-old fedoras. The quality is wonderful. They come in blues, grays, tans, and black. The Indiana Jones hat is a fedora.
Collectors Weekly: When was the fedora invented?
Cornyn-Selby: Interestingly, the fedora was also named after a play. In the 1880s, Sarah Bernhardt played the lead in a play called “Fedora,” so the fedora started life on the head of a woman. She wore it with a big plume sticking out of it. Robert Downey Jr. wears a fedora in the new Sherlock Holmes movie—on his, the brim kind of curls up a little bit. That may not be totally historically accurate, but it’s close. From about 1910 on, everybody’s father and grandfather wore that style of hat.
Part of the fedora’s popularity came about because it wasn’t as stiff as the bowler, straw boater, or top hat. Shellac in the fur felt and straw made those types of hats stiff. Shellac comes from India. At one point there was a shortage of shellac, so hatters started making hats without shellac and called them soft hats. Cavanaugh, Dobbs, all the major hat companies made fedoras.
Collectors Weekly: Who were the major hat companies?
Cornyn-Selby: Cavanaugh, an American company, was considered the top of the line. Christie’s and Herbert Johnson in London were two others. Christie’s Hats has been around for generations. Lock’s Hat Shop can produce any kind of hat you want. They’re still in business and very popular. Borsalino, an Italian company, is probably the foremost maker of men’s hats today. They can provide you with any style and make your hat out of just about any material. Dobbs was another good one. They were on 5th Avenue in New York.
When it comes to hat designers, you’re pretty much talking about women’s hats. People who make women’s hats are called milliners. There’s a straw named for the city Milan, which was and is a major fashion center. So the term milliner came from Milaner.
Styles don’t change in men’s hats in the same way that they do in women’s. You don’t really have hat designers for men because a lot of the hats they wear would’ve been available a hundred years ago. That’s true with all men’s fashions. The suit really hasn’t changed very much. A guy could wear a suit from the 1940s and look well dressed today.
Collectors Weekly: What is America known for?
Cornyn-Selby: The only true American hat is the baseball cap. That’s the only one that actually got its start here. The original baseball cap was like a beanie with a little bill. It’s the one that you see Babe Ruth wearing.
When people say the word Stetson, almost everybody immediately thinks cowboy hats. But Stetson was not a Wild West guy at all; he was a Philadelphia businessman. He started his company in 1860. The cowboy hat was not even an American invention. Mongolian horsemen wore it first, they brought it to the Spanish, the Spanish brought it to Mexico, and then it made its way to the Wild West. Stetson wanted to make money so he sold cowboy hats to wealthy cattlemen.
Today Stetson does a lot more than make cowboy hats. They make bowler hats and all the English walking hats, which are essentially different types of trilbies. They’re made out of what looks like wool fabric, like a man’s suit. They even have a line of women’s hats called Lady Stetson. We have an Indiana Jones-style fedora that’s made by Stetson. So when you say Stetson, you can’t just mean the cowboy hat.
I think the foremost maker of cowboy hats today is probably Rand Custom Hatters in Billings, Montana. They make gorgeous cowboy hats, some of them costing thousands of dollars. They’ve made cowboy hats for Ronald Reagan and every country star you can imagine.
There is a wonderful book called “The Cowboy Hat.” It used to be that you could tell where a person was from by the shape of the hat. You knew if they were from Montana or from Arizona by the width of the brim and the shape of the hat. That isn’t true today, but there are different styles of cowboy hats.
There’s a wonderful story about a restaurant in Dallas that had received a reservation for 10. When the appointed time came, five guys came walking in the door. The maitre d’ was looking around thinking that maybe the wives were still out in the parking lot, but it was just these five guys. So they sat down at the table with a chair between each one of them, took off their cowboy hats, and put them in the chairs.
The 10-gallon hat actually has an interesting history. A 10-gallon hat doesn’t hold 10 gallons; the name is derived from the Spanish word galon, meaning braid. So a 10-gallon hat was just a name for a hat with braiding around the brim.
You’ve got to ask yourself why men don’t wear hats as much today as they did back in the ’30s and ’40s? I think one of the reasons was the hatcheck system. You’d have to tip the hatcheck person a dime or a quarter each time you checked your hat. In the 1940s, a nice men’s hat would cost $3.98. If you had lunch every day for a week and you tipped a dime every day, that’s 50 cents. Within a couple of months, you’ve bought your hat all over again. So men decided to start leaving their hats at home because it got kind of expensive.
Collectors Weekly: Are there certain rare hats that collectors look for?
Cornyn-Selby: Like anything, the older the hat is, the more rare it is. Anything made of fabric tends to fall apart. They used a lot of silks 150 years ago, and those hats just turned to dust.
We have some very rare beaver-fur felt top hats that are about 130 years old. We also have hats that were worn in the movies. We have a gray homburg that was worn in the movie “Chicago.” The men’s hat section in the museum has the best history lessons.
Collectors Weekly: How do you preserve the older hats?
Cornyn-Selby: That’s a real challenge. You should never put plastic anywhere near vintage fabric, and that includes the hats. If you want to just collect a hat and not wear it, then your best bet is to wrap it in the old tissue paper and put it in a box. You want an environment that’s as moisture-free as possible—not too hot, not too cold. You don’t want to put it in a basement or an attic where it doesn’t get any heat.
Basically, your hat’s going to want the same environment that you want. It wants to be dry and at a normal temperature and covered up. We don’t allow photography at the museum because the light affects straw and fabric.
If you want to display your hat at home, the best bet is to put it in a Plexiglas case or under glass. A display cabinet or something like that would work. Keep the lights off it as much as possible—you can turn them on when you’re showing off your collection. That’s what we do. We keep the lights out until we have somebody here to see the hats, and then we click a button and all the lights fly on.
Collectors Weekly: What is your opinion about wearing vintage hats?
Cornyn-Selby: One of the reason I love men’s hats is because they are tough. The inside sweatband of those vintage ’50s fedoras might wear out, but if it’s made of really good leather, it’ll still be strong enough for use. I wear hats that are 50, 60 years old, no problem. I’ll even wear them in the rain. A good fur felt hat is going to be waterproof. I don’t have any trouble wearing men’s hats, I’ll wear them every day.
I’ve had a few of the big Edwardian women’s hats, but I’d probably wear a reproduction if I were going to wear it outside. The straw could crack. You have to be gentle with them.
If you ruin a vintage hat, you’ve really lost a piece of history. Nobody’s making these old hats anymore, so we have a tendency to keep our hands off of those things.
Collectors Weekly: What advice do you have for would-be hat collectors?
Cornyn-Selby: There are lots of really good books on men’s hats. Deb Henderson has written a few. Neil Steinberg wrote “Hatless Jack” and “The History of American Style,” which is an excellent book. It has a lot of information about all different kinds of hats, but especially about American men’s hats and the reasons why men don’t wear them so much anymore.
With hats, there’s always something new to learn. Even though I run a hat museum, there are hats I’ve never heard of before. There is a wonderful website, www.hatshapers.com, that lists all the different names for hat styles. For example, there’s apparently a hat called a vagabond. I’ve no idea what that looks like. There’s one called a volendam. I don’t know what that one is, either.
(All images courtesy Alyce Cornyn-Selby of The Hat Museum)