“Don’t wear white after Labor Day!” This popular fashion rule is not quite as relevant these days as it used to be, but the general sense of this old adage is that one should retire summer clothing by early September and begin wearing more “seasonally appropriate” attire for the incoming autumn and winter months. Such “fashion rules” no longer hold the same sway over individuals that they once did, but this transition has not always been a gradual one. In the autumn of 1922, New York saw the much messier death of a peculiar fashion tradition. Like the white attire of summer, it was once considered a fashion taboo to wear a straw hat past a certain date in September. (1)
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Straw or Felt?
Woven from straw and brimmed against the sun, in the early twentieth century straw hats called “boaters” were extremely popular summer attire for men. Like the name “boater” implies, these woven straw hats were a favorite for outdoor sporting activities like boating. Considered much more casual than their felt alternatives, straw hats eventually began to be accepted as appropriate everyday attire, even in most professional settings, during the sweltering summer months. It was simply too hot to resist the breathability of straw when compared with the felt alternatives. Still despite the increasing acceptance of the professional straw hat, the rule remained that wearing such a hat outside of the summer months was tacky at best and potentially disrespectful or offensive. (2)
Switch Your Hat Day?
Over time, an unspoken rule morphed into a somewhat raucous tradition. On the selected arbitrary day in September, which had initially been the first of the month but was eventually changed to the fifteenth, men were cautioned to pack away their straw hats and switch to felt. This date was even referred to as “Felt Hat Day.” (3)
While this informal fashion holiday might seem innocuous, the traditions that formed around it were anything but. Around, and especially after, Felt Hat Day, men who refused or neglected to switch out their hats were ridiculed, mocked, assaulted, and often had their hats knocked off, stolen, or trampled. Quite a price to pay for trying to beat the persistent September heat.
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The Felt Hat Day festivities eventually developed into something that can only be described as a ritualistic outlet for the exuberance of youth. That is to say that Felt Hat Day became a Halloween-like day of shenanigans and outbursts from roving bands of teenaged boys and young adults. A newspaper article from The Pittsburgh Press dated September 15th, 1910:
“On the whole, the new carnival does not commend itself to sober considerations of public policy. It is okay for stock brokers on the exchanges to destroy one another’s hats if they like, on the principle that everything goes among friends. But no man likes to have his hat snatched from his head by somebody he has not yet to be introduced to…”The Pittsburgh Press September 15th, 1910 (4)
This article cautions against the hell-raising tendencies of youngsters and suggests that these hooligans might be endangering their own lives by starting such confrontations with strangers. While the activities of “Felt Hat Day” might somewhat resemble traditions like pinching a friend who refuses to wear green on Saint Patrick’s Day, as this paper points out, Felt Hat Day had gotten out of control almost as soon as it had begun with bands of merry-makers vandalizing the belongings of total strangers. (5)
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The Events of Felt Hat Day in 1922
By 1922, Felt Hat Day mischief had become quite a popular tradition with over a decade of history behind it. 1922, however, would be the year in which this tradition went completely off the rails. Beginning several days before the official hat-stomping holiday, over-zealous groups of youths began to wander New York City in search of victims with which they could get an early start on their trouble-making. As these bands grew in size and aggression, they began targeting factory and dock workers, knocking off their hats, and picking fights. These blue-collar workers were not enthused by the Felt Hat Day festivities and proceeded to fight back against the teenaged onslaught. What ensued was several days of brawls resulting in the arrests of dozens of offenders. Most of those arrested, however, were under the age of fifteen and were released shortly after the event. Several people were hospitalized, many parents were summoned to pick up their children, and hat stores remained open throughout the night selling huge quantities of felt hats. This days-long conflict is now referred to as the Straw Hat Riot. (6)
The End of a Tradition
Felt Hat Day had obviously come to a climax which left many adults disenchanted with the fashion taboo turned holiday. Surprisingly, though, these events did not kill Felt Hat Day nor did it mark the end of straw hat-fueled violence. In 1924, in fact, a man was even murdered for wearing a straw hat on the day of the switch. (7)
What really killed the straw hat fashion taboo was the increasing popularity of alternative styles of hat, especially the Panama hat.
Not Quite Panama Hats
Despite its name, the Panama hat is an Ecuadorian tradition that is not typically manufactured in Panama. When the United States began construction of the Panama Canal in 1904, the laborers who dug out the narrow Isthmus of Panama wore these brimmed Ecuadorian hats in order to protect their faces from the relentless sun. The name “Panama hat” first appeared in 1906 when a newspaper photographed President Theodore Roosevelt wearing one such hat while overseeing the canal’s construction. When the canal was completed, a massive surge in trade from South and Central America brought the so-called “Panama hat” to the United States. (8)
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While the main conversation surrounding the Straw Hat Riot is centered around the arbitrary-ness of fashion rules and taboos, this conflict actually touches on a lot of interesting themes that are relevant to modern audiences even if most of us are perfectly comfortable wearing our white clothes all year. It should not go unnoticed that the real trouble with Felt Hat Day began when exhausted laborers, undoubtedly hot and sweaty from working in the September sun, were set upon by these gangs of youths. The idea that the most hardworking among us must wear impractical and restrictive clothing for the sake of “appropriate fashion” is evidently foolish and unsustainable. Class struggle and the conflicts that occur when youthful counterculture collides with the adult world are ideas that persist as part of the modern social experience. Can we learn anything from the Straw Hat Riot? Probably, although I doubt we can all agree on what exactly that is. If nothing else, let people wear straw hats!