Hats fascinate me. Though they present themselves as mere fashion accessories they seem to possess secret powers of their own, like a part of a superhero costume. Some individuals use head coverings as a strategy to deflect attention but often the effect is the exact opposite. Unless they are worn purely for a functional purpose, hats often instigate a transformation of character. Once placed on a person’s head, you may see their gait change, conveying a bit of swagger or perhaps a strut. Their posture may shift to a more upright or confident position better suited to the personality of the hat. The change rarely seems to be conscious or intentional, but I’ve seen it happen more times than I can count.
One memorable occasion of a hat’s transformational effects occurred on a pier in Greece. A Greek fisherman’s cap that I’d purchased on the trip was perched atop my head. Minding my own business while a tour guide spoke, a Japanese tourist requested to have his picture taken with me. Between the hat and the yellow rain slicker, I suppose I could have passed for a fisherman as long as my southern drawl didn’t rat me out. It didn’t register with me at the time, but that encounter should have put me on notice: hats have a way of changing how we look, how others perceive us, and perhaps even how we see ourselves.
My wife’s grandfather, Morris, wore hats, especially in the winter to keep his head warm. He always referred to them as lids. “Has anyone seen my lid?” he’d ask when he couldn’t remember where he last laid it. I usually associate lids with containers like pots and kettles, or boxes and tubs. The phrase “Put a lid on it!” might refer to covering one of those items or, as some of us have heard from time to time, it may be a command to shut our mouths. But the term works for head coverings as well – so much in fact that here in the Midwest there is a chain of hat stores named “Lids.”
One hat that closely resembles a lid is the flat cap. It was Morris’ lid of choice and is popular with many people. It looks striking on an English bulldog but doesn’t quite work for me. The transformation it tries to impose is too out of character. Peering into a mirror while wearing one, I feel like I should chew on a fat stogie cigar to complete the ensemble, or hawk newspapers on a street corner. In fact, the flat cap is sometimes called a “newsboy” or “newsie.” That is just not me, so I leave this lid to others for whom it is better suited.
The hat that became a constant companion during my adolescent years was the so-called baseball cap. Every baseball team I’ve ever seen wears them. They were part of the uniform in our Little League where area service organizations sponsored the teams. That was not without its drawbacks. Instead of a really cool nickname, the big O on the front of our caps stood for Optimist. That was a tall order given how our team played some games. “Optimist” is a name that wouldn’t intimidate anyone, except perhaps a sourpuss afraid of being infected with a better disposition. Come to think of it, while the hat may have transformed our thinking that we were ballplayers, the skills still lagged behind. I guess there are limits to what a hat can do.
More important than baseball, for our family this style of lid was a “front and center” advertising item for agribusiness companies. Farm implements like John Deere. Feed brands like Nutrena. Dairy companies like Long Meadow. They all doled out free caps because what better way to etch themselves into our memories than to flash before our eyes every morning and then ride atop our foreheads as we headed out to work. Perhaps because of that, to this day baseball caps bring out the farm boy in me. Slip one of those on my noggin’ and I’m primed to pick up and tote heavy things, climb on a tractor, or chew on a piece of straw. And, most final t’s and g’s slide off the end of my words as well. This transformation feels comfortably familiar, so I don’t really mind.
These days, the well-known Panama hat is a favorite of mine. This straw head covering actually originated in Ecuador in the 1600’s but a photo of Teddy Roosevelt wearing one when he visited the Panama Canal helped popularize the hat and associate it with the wrong country. The first time I ever wore one of these was at a high school prom when a friend loaned his to me. Honestly, it seemed like I became a better dancer as soon as I put it on my head. Trust me. Even at my best I’m not good enough to be a “Dancing with the Stars” reject, but that night I had moves that I’d never seen before and haven’t heard from since.
A black fedora was my hat of choice during my working years. In my role as a seminary dean and senior administrator I thought most days in the office called for something more than casual dress. Indiana winters demand warm wraps so I usually wore a long, black wool coat to the office. A black fedora was a good match for that, especially with windy walks from the parking lot, but the hat was not without effect. When paired with my black beard and long coat, people often commented that I looked like a rabbi. (Right profession, wrong tradition). That happened once even without the fedora. Standing on the tarmac waiting to board an El Al flight from Tel Aviv to the U.S., a Jewish man in front of me turned to speak confidentially in Hebrew. When I politely shared that I was American he turned away with embarrassment, thus ending the conversation. Rather than a rabbi, some have equated the look of the fedora and long coat with a gangster. There were a few days in the office when I wished I could have been, but was missing the required Tommy gun to complete the job. The comparison does cause me to wonder if there are unnoticed similarities between those two professions!
A broad brimmed straw hat reserved for work in the garden often gets called into service these days because it offers more sun protection than the baseball cap. Placed on my head, it makes me look a bit like some of my Amish neighbors as long as you don’t look below my neck where you’d notice I violate the rest of the dress code. Times are changing, so my tractor with rubber tires is no longer a guarantee that I’m not Amish, but the GMC pickup truck I drive helps distinguish me from the area’s plain people. The transformation brought by this lid doesn’t encourage me to give up electricity but I must confess that wearing the straw hat nudges me to a slower pace and a simpler life. Life has a more wholesome feel in those circumstances. That could be more garden than hat at work, but who is to say which is the greater influence?
A visit to Myanmar in 2018 scored a round hat with a hard shell and broad brim. The guy selling them had to visit half his neighbors looking for a hat large enough to fit my American-sized head. I felt bad for causing so much extra work and tried to relieve him of the search, but there was no calling him off! Whether it was the importance of a sale or his sense of responsibility to satisfy the customer, he zipped around the neighborhood until he found a satisfactory one. A nice souvenir, it looks like it belongs in a rice patty or on a jungle safari rather than Midwest America. I thought it might share duties with my straw hat in the garden where more and more, thanks to thinner hair and less of an ozone layer, I need to cover my head. Unfortunately, it has proven to be too hot and uncomfortable to be put into service. It is doomed to hang as a display piece in our utility room.
Apparently, there is something to the old adage that “clothes make the man (woman/person).” Like a cherry on top of a sundae, whatever transformation starts with shirts or glasses is accentuated by the lid on top. Funny how an article of clothing can have such an effect. All of that is to say that the transformation I notice in others connects with my own experience.
Just recently while watching a few hats in action at a local mall, I was prompted to think about the quest for and joy of transformation, even if temporary. We may be more smitten with the idea than we realize. Think of the fascination with products like Botox, designed to disguise the aging process. Or cosmetic surgery, capable of completely changing a person’s looks. Or weight loss, perhaps for health but often to address the pressure that cultural stereotypes place upon us. Or body-building, sometimes about strength but also to address inadequacies felt in the face of others’ expectations. And let’s not forget those moments when we are just tired of our current lot in life and wish to escape to something new, even if only for a few hours. Lest this all seem superficial, let’s remember how often various religious traditions encourage transformation as part of the spiritual journey, like the lines of these words from Romans in the New Testament: “And be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” (12:2)
Some changes are easy to accomplish. Some of the most important transformation takes hard work and a lifetime of effort. So, when a small thing like a hat can give you a boost in the right direction go ahead — put a lid on it!