If you recall from last week, we were beginning to discuss postcards which show children dressing up like their elders. (Yes, we actually spent that column talking about all the postcards we were NOT going to talk about. But work with me here.) A quick examination of the cards shows that one of the unmistakable signs of a child playing grown-up is a big person’s hat.
Once upon a time, see, clothes made the grown-up. Boys wore short pants until they went through puberty, and girls wore short skirts. Only the adults in the population were allowed to cover their knees. (There must have been some allowances made in parts of the world where snow predominated. But these aren’t things that wind up in family albums, or, for the most part, on postcards.) And as for hats, boys wore caps and girls wore bonnets. Brims and floral arrangements (often with stuffed birds attached) were reserved for those who had made it to marriageable age and were advertising their availability.
The heroine of the picture at the top of this column, for example, wears only a bow in her hair, quite acceptable for schoolkids. The male specimen she is obviously falling for wears the perfectly acceptable childhood knickerbockers, an odd military blouse, and a slightly battered grown-up hat, which I think is what’s really sending her into swoons. Look at the rest of his clothes, child! Run the other way!
The symbol, though, of a small boy wanting to look grown up is the top hat. The morning coat and boutonniere help, of course, in this vision, but it’s that top hat which really makes us know he is being very adult.
The top hat started to come into fashion in the late eighteenth century, when legend claims its inventor was arrested for wearing headgear intended to frighten timid passersby. It was made of felt, which was made with mercury, and led to the deaths of many beavers whose fur was used in the felt and hatters, who went mad from the mercury poisoning, But after a while, silk was substituted, and it is the silk top hat worn by males in the western world which became an icon. We don’t need to go into the history of its various relatives—the stove-pipe hat, which was a really tall top hat, or the spring-loaded top hat, so beloved of animated cartoons in the 1930s—but it was THE headgear for serious men of business for nearly two generations.
At some point, which the Interwebs are hazy about, it started to take on ironic subtexts. Gradually, it became the headgear only of the wealthy aristocrat and the wild, partying rich playboy. This happened at around the same time that the postcard was becoming the quick communication system of the western world, and here, we really see our kids putting them on.
This chap, headed out on the town, has his topper, his walking stick, and a romper version of evening wear. If we had any doubt what he was planning to do tonight, he makes it clear.
A boys’ night out requires several of these party-mad dandies, and Mabel Lucie Attwell has provided us with a fivesome, giving them full formal attire, with walking sticks and monocles to emphasize the joke.
Yes, a few businessmen still emphasized the serious nature of their jobs by wearing top hats to work, like this young man, the subject of a series of postcards by Kathleen Mathew showing important intervals in a businessman’s day. He is putting on his hat, ready to leave work at precisely five p.m., but I have seen the rest of the series, and know he stops off for a quick one (or two) at the club on his way, so the party boy with the top hat is still present in this picture.
And this chap is simply filled with emotion at the thought of his love. (But to judge by the ferocity of his hug, and her look of surprise, I suspect he’s had a few, too.)
So if you saw a Baby New Year in a top hat welcoming in 2023, you saw that the joke lives on. The small boy pretending to be a grown-up, and entitled to full festivities, is a child in a top hat, and our postcard artists knew that was the only way to….
Okay, there’s always got to be an exception to prove the rule. Nice hat, bro.