How the Grammy Hat Worn by Pharrell Williams Fits into the History of Haberdashery

Photograph by Lester Cohen, WireImage

“Traditionally whatever is worn on the head, whether or not it grows there naturally, is a sign of the mind beneath it,” writes Alison Lurie in The Language of Clothes.

What then is going on in the mind beneath the Dudley Do-Right camel-colored hat worn by singer Pharrell Williams at last night’s Grammy Awards? And for that matter, what kind of a hat is it? Ranger Rick?  Smokey the Bear? A pumped-up Fuller brush salesman?

The celebrity’s hat became a celebrity on its own, and set cyber tongues to wagging with its own Instagram account and Twitter account that at last count had 14,000 followers?

“It’s an oversize—and you have to stress the oversize—dramatically dented derby,” says Patricia Underwood, a New York hat designer. “It is definitely not a Canadian Mountie hat, which would have an absolutely flat brim.”

Michelle Finamore, curator of Fashion Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston puts it in the bowler category—like those worn by women in Peru and Bolivia. (The star later revealed to Entertaiment Weekly that it was in fact a Vivienne Westwood Buffalo hat. Westwood is the bad-girl genius of British fashion who helped spawn the safety pin-rubber-leather-zipper punk look in the 1970s.)

“Williams has been on my radar for some time,” Finamore says. “He’s a challenging and dynamic dresser and always making a fashion statement. Why did the hat get such attention? I think because it’s a more extreme version of what people are wearing. Not many people commented on Madonna’s hat. They did note the grill on her teeth, though.”

Of course the celebrity head crowned by a hat isn’t new—think of Boy George’s purple fedora, the cowboy-chic hat of country-western singers, not to mention JLo’s floppy hats. (“We’ve made hats for her,” Underwood says.  “We even have a model named the ‘JLo.’ ”)

Alison Lurie also points out that the male hat can have a sexual subtext, and that periods of male dominance have coincided with high hats for men: Think the tall hat of the Puritans and the Victorian top hat. Which may give an added frisson of meaning to Williams’ top gear. Or is that over-interpretation?

“Well, I don’t know,” says Finamore cautiously. “But I’m interested in any kind of interpretation.”

Human Journey

Meet the Author
Cathy Newman began her career writing for the Miami News, before joining the staff of National Geographic Magazine where she was Editor at Large. In addition to dozens of articles for the magazine, she is the author of three books for National Geographic. Perfume: The Art and Science of Scent, Women Photographers at National Geographic, and Fashion. She is a regular contributor to Smithsonian Journeys.