Does anyone know about men’s hats, anymore? Back in the day, buying a hat was easy.
I started wearing my hat, a grey, snap brim trilby, in 1995. I remember the day and the circumstances. The editor of the Evening Herald called and confirmed my appointment as the paper’s diarist, writing a daily column about the city and its denizens and what they got up to of an evening. He asked me to report for duty that day and have my photograph taken for the column’s masthead.
Since I’d already spent the previous two weeks writing the column under a self styled pseudonym, ‘John Newman’, I was familiar with Independent House on Abbey St so when I got there, I went straight up to the photographers’ studio at the top of the building. The snapper on duty told me it would only take a minute and he went about fiddling with the lighting and setting up the profile shot. Then I got a flash.
I had just finished reading and reviewing Neal Gabler’s ‘Walter Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity’, a biography of an American journalist who, it is widely claimed, was the first gossip columnist. Sweet Smell of Success, an American noir classic starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis and which was loosely based on Winchell, had long been safely ensconced in my Top Ten List of favourite movies.
‘Can you wait five minutes?’ I asked the snapper, ‘there’s something I need to do.’ Before he answered I was out the door and descending the stairs, two at a time. I ran out the front door and turned left, heading for O’Connell St. I ran across the road and straight in to Clery’s department store. Back then, the store had a proper hat department with old men in neat suits and measuring tapes. Quickly scanning the rows and rows of hats in different colours sizes and shapes, my eyes found the hat I wanted. I asked the attendant if I could try one on and he said,’fire ahead’ and pointed me to a mirror.
The first hat I tried was too small, the second one, a perfect fit. The attendant stood beside me, attentively. But he took the hat from me and, with a deft and practiced twitch of his wrist, snapped the brim, explaining ‘this is a snap brim trilby.’ I looked at him in horror. ‘Have you another one the same size?’ I asked, explaining, ‘I don’t want the brim snapped.’ He sighed and found another hat, unsnapped, and gave it to me, a perfect fit. I paid him and left. In the studio in Independent House, I put on the hat and smiled, ‘you can take my picture now.’
The hat achieved all I wanted it to do, and more. I realised, as a diarist, I needed an edge. Winchell worked at night, on the beat of nightclubs, restaurants, theatres and hotel lobbies. I wanted to do the same, to become the eyes and ears of the paper’s readers, so when they picked up their paper the next day, they would read an account of the city’s social nightlife less than twelve hours after it happened.
I didn’t wear my hat on the ‘Dublin’ side or the ‘Kildare’ side, as the hatters’ and practice believed or advised. I wore it back on my head, unsnapped. I broke the rules but for a purpose. I thought if I wore it too slouched, it might cover my face and give me a sinister or hidden appearance. Wearing it back and unsnapped, left my face open and myself, approachable. It also gave me an identity. People ‘knew’ who I was when I attended an event and that made it easier for me to approach them. As a journalist, I felt a reluctance to relinquish my anonymity but in the nature of the job I was taking on, it was a necessary sacrifice. My hat got me in doors and that’s where the stories were.
It had its ups and downs, of course. As the paper played up my name for finding ‘scoops’, they played up the association and once advertised three exclusives in the Dairy as ‘a hat trick’. Eventually, they changed the name of the diary to ‘The Hat.’ Me and ‘The Hat’ were synonymous.
There’s a strange thing about hats and public perception of them. Forty years ago and more, almost everyone wore a hat. It was part of your wardrobe, as much as a pair of socks. Then people stopped wearing them. My hat was an exception and for some odd reason, people felt the urge to grab it, steal it, wear it. They never asked and it led me to believe it was an enormous discourtesy, simply bad manners. Yet confronted with their social aberration, one was greeted with blind, incomprehension, as though I was speaking unintelligible gibberish.
On the other hand, as I’ve said, it got me noticed and it got me in doors. At the black tie opening night of Riverdance in Radio City Music Hall, New York, a leading Irish socialite approached me and introduced me her own gathering of close friends who included the CEO of one of the world’s best known insurance companies and the president of a leading international bank. It was a case of mistaken identity. My first clue was how she introduced all her companions to me, indicating I was so famous I didn’t require introduction. This was confirmed at the interval when the bank president approached me with his programme in hand and asked me to autograph it for his granddaughter who, he said, was a big fan of my music. I signed it, ‘Close to The Edge.’
Another time while I attended the launch of a book about then World F1 champion, Damon Hill in London’s impressive Natural History Museum, I was approached by a slouched, grey haired man, wearing a hat and accompanied by three children, I gathered were his grandchildren. ‘Excuse me,’ he said, ‘are you The Edge from U2?’ ‘No, I’m not,’ I told him, adding, ‘but right now, I wish I was, Mr Harrison.’
At the gala, star studded opening of Planet Hollywood on St Stephen’s Green, the celebrities were coralled in the Conrad Hilton on Earlsfort Terrace before they were transported by waiting limos to the red carpet which began outside the College of Surgeons. Pat Kenny stood on a flat bed truck outside the floodlit entrance of the restaurant and announced the celebrities as they arrived to take the walk down the carpet, cheered by the celebrity spotting public, lining the way. In the Conrad, I was approached by Arnold Schwarzenegger who shook my hand and, leaning close, said, ‘I love your hat.’
I shared a limo to the event with singer Michael Ball and his manager. When we emerged from the car, there was a very brief silence before Pat Kenny announced Michael’s presence but in that second a local wag could be overheard asking, ‘who’s dat with The Hat?’, prompting Michael to joke it would be the last time he’d give me a lift in Dublin.
The hat could be a nuisance, too and I took to not wearing it when I was on holidays or out with my young, growing family. It could be an unwelcome and frankly, ironic, intrusion.
These days, there’s a revival of hats even if everyone opts for that ‘porkpie’ ‘wideboy’ look so loved by Hollywood’s young and trendy arrivistes. But in Dublin, the real hatters have gone and hats are sold like party treats without any notion of their fashion culture. After buying my first hat in Clery’s, someone introduced me to Mr Coyle’s shop on Aungier St.
It was an old school men’s haberdashery where
string vests and studded collars could be bought alongside a staggering collection of hats of every shape, size and style. It was a mecca of hats.
Mr Coyle supplied all the hats for Neil Jordan’s Micheal Collins film and delighted in explaining the subtle differences between a proper bowler and an ‘Anthony Eden.’ Head to Toe, the RTE fashion show, once approached me to talk about hats and I insisted the interview was done in Mr Coyle’s shop. He was delighted. Unfortunately, he was an elderly gentleman and when he died, a great tradition in Dublin died with him.