Men’s Hat and Head-Coverings Etiquette–From the Baseball Cap and the “Hoodie,” to the Rastafarian “Herb Hat,” the Top Hat, and the Keffiyah


Until the 1950s with the rise of the automobile—which, in addition to providing private, door-to-door transportation, also provides shelter from the elements—hats were essential to a gentleman’s wardrobe, serving as protective gear. But hats also served as an aesthetic punctuation to a man’s ensemble. The hat was at once crown, wearable umbrella/parasol, and fashion statement. And in the days when many roads were unpaved, hats also contributed to overall hygiene: They shielded the hair from dust and dirt—which was especially important since many people, prior to the proliferation of indoor plumbing, washed their hair about once per week. But by the end of 1960s, with its free-flowing men’s hairstyles, coupled with the decline of the hat, which had begun in the beginning of the previous decade, the once-ubiquitous derby, fedora, and “Borsalino,” for example, had lost their appeal to men—certainly to young men—in most of the industrialized, “automobilized” world. Military, as well as some professional uniforms, still require hats; and they can still be seen as part of traditional, religious, and ceremonial dress and costumes the world over. But besides the Panama hat worn by gentleman in warm climates, particularly in the Spanish-influenced Southern Hemisphere (and, incidentally, is manufactured in Ecuador, not Panama); the Stetson hat, typically worn by cowboys and gentlemen of America’s Southwestern regions; woolen beanies and berets, worn during the winter months; and baseball caps—the hat of choice of the 21st-century young men who wear hats—the hat, like the once-obligatory little, white gloves worn by all respectable ladies in the Western World until the middle of the 1960s, is for the most part regarded as one of the great fashion casualties of the second half of the 20th century. And with the decline of the hat went the hat-related etiquette that once occupied at least several paragraphs of any bona-fide book on manners. Gone with it, too, was one of the easiest ways of distinguishing a gentleman from one not so gentle: The manner in which he handles his hat in public. Consequently today, with few wearers of hats left in the world, there are even fewer men in command of the manners that are to accompany the wearing of hats.

But hats are making a comeback; and as such, hat etiquette has once again reared its well-appointed head! Department stores and fine men’s stores are seeing an upsurge in requests for hats since the beginning of the 21st century. Fashion-forward, urbane, young men are once again donning fedoras and Homburgs—this time not with suits as was the case from the 1930s to the early 1960s, but with jeans and whatever complements jeans. Unlike earlier eras, however, which had living, evolving hat rules in operation, 21st-century men have had to put on new hats but dust off old hat rules. And some modern men resist. Consequently, many present-day hat wearers are creating their own rules—which generally amounts to doing whatever they please, whenever they please—and they are sometimes being met with resistance from those who still recall or have been briefed and are being asked to enforce the old rules. Then, to further frustrate matters, sometimes the establishments that enforce the old rules do not have the infrastructure to accommodate their enforcement. How many restaurants today, for example, have hat racks in their coat-check rooms? Very few. So what’s a boy to do? Some hat-wearers argue that based on today’s relaxed standards, they would not remove their hats upon entering a McDonald’s, so they see no reason to doff their hats upon entering Washington, DC’s Old Ebbitt Grill. Others, arguing for equality of the sexes, are of the position that if women may enter a building wearing a hat, why shouldn’t men. Some feel that a hat is a part of an ensemble, and to remove it “kills” the overall “look.” Others see donning or doffing a hat as an exercise in freedom of speech, and that they should have the final word, not the waiter—no matter how fine the restaurant.

But manners are less about lofty, legally protected, fundamental rights—whether they be rooted in a Constitution or based on Natural Law—than they are about simple, little courtesies, freely and graciously extended to others. No law, for example, prohibits a man from picking his teeth with his fork or cleaning his nails with his butter knife. He refrains from engaging in such distasteful behavior, even if he would normally take delight in it, because such acts are likely to offend most decent people. Likewise, any true lady who is well within the laws of etiquette to wear her magnificent hat indoors would remove it if it was obstructing the view of a person seated behind her in a fixed position. Manners are more for others than for self. So as 21st-century gentlemen strive to reach consensus on proper hat comportment appropriate for their lives and times, they should employ not only sound reason and logic, they should also begin by looking at the old customs, for there is much social wisdom “codified” therein. At the end of the day, manners—regardless of the century—must uplift humanity. They must make people kinder, gentler, and more sensitive to and respectful of the needs and wants of others.

Below are hat rules that are inspired by the elegance and tradition of the past, while accommodating the realities and practicalities of modern-day life:

Assuming that a man already knows how to properly position his hat of choice upon his head such that it is most flattering to his features, most rules of etiquette relating to hats deal with when, how, and where they are to be donned (put on), doffed (taken off), or tipped (slightly raised or touched)—especially in deference to God, nation, and women.

The general rule regarding men’s hats in Western culture is: hats on outdoors; hats off indoors. But as with most rules, there are exceptions. Also, Western culture—fortunately—is not the only culture, and other cultures have their own traditions. For example, in Hebrew and Islamic cultures, men cover their heads before entering a place of worship, while Christian men remove their hats. A Christian woman, on the other hand, until the late 1960s, would cover her head with a veil or a hat before entering a place of worship. Still today in African-American Christian congregations, women oftentimes wear hats to church (but more as a fashion statement than one of reverence). Islamic women and some Jewish women still cover their heads in places of worship.

When a gentleman encounters, in passing, a fellow gentleman-friend or a lady-friend on a public street or some other outdoor public space, in addition to extending the greeting appropriate to the time of day, he tips his hat, meaning he raises it ever so slightly off his head by grasping the crown of the hat, replacing it immediately thereafter; or he bows—only his head—ever so slightly (similar to a nodding of the head, only done more slowly, deliberately, and elegantly), while simultaneously holding with his right hand the portion of the brim, situated just over his right eye, with his thumb on the underside and his index finger on the topside, pulling ever-so-gently forward at the brim in two very abbreviated pulls. If he and a lady stop to engage each other in conversation, or if he engages in conversation with a gentleman who is in the company of a lady, however, he must remove his hat. In inclement weather, most ladies will thank the gentleman for his courteous gesture then request that he quickly replace his hat in the interest of health. If she fails to do so, he should politely ask her indulgence, then replace his hat. (There is already a shortage of gentlemen in the 21st century, so there is no point in the few who remain dying from exposure!) And, of course, if the gentleman and lady proceed together after their brief encounter, he should replace his hat as they stroll off together. But a gentleman should not remove his hat when speaking to a man or men in public spaces, unless, of course, addressing a high-ranking elected official, a man of the cloth, or a man old enough to be his father.

When doffing a hat, it is imperative that it be done in such a manner that its inside is visible only to its wearer. (The insides of hats are oftentimes soiled and marked with unsightly perspiration stains). And when donning a hat that has been doffed, the same courtesy should be extended—and is generally much appreciated!

Even fitted hats such as beanys and “Basque” berets should be removed under the circumstances when a man should remove his hat. Clearly, beanys and berets cannot be raised “ever-so-slightly” by the crown or tipped by pinch-tugging the brim when greeting in passing since they have no brims. Alternatively, therefore, the gentleman should bow his head ever so slightly. When stopping to engage conversation, however, such hats should be removed whenever it is appropriate for a man to remove his hat. In the case of such soft hats, they should be removed by grasping the center of the crown then pulling in an upward-backward motion. And to the extent that a man’s hair becomes disheveled in the process, the adjustment to his hair should be very brief and done matter-of-factly. Under no circumstances should it escalate to an exercise in curbside coiffure.

If wearing a hood, whether as part of outerwear or an exercise garment, it should be removed from the head whenever a hat would be removed. In the instances when a hat should be tipped or raised slightly as a polite gesture in passing, a gentleman wearing a hood should bow slightly while exchanging his courtesies, thereafter continuing on his way.

Protective hats and helmets are not removed while the wearer is engaged in the activity that warrants the wearing of the hat. An equestrian wearing a helmet while mounted on his horse would not remove his headgear while speaking with a lady. Neither would a motorcycle rider remove his helmet. Upon dismounting, however, the protective headgear should be removed when engaged in conversation with a lady or an older gentleman.

Baseball caps have long emerged from dugouts and are now a part of urban casual wear; and as such, hat etiquette—beyond that relevant to the sport of baseball—applies. Unlike other hats, which are for the most part removed by grasping their crowns (the top hat and the bowler, for example, being two exceptions since their crowns are too sturdy for pinching and are therefore lifted off the head by their brims), a baseball cap is removed by firmly grasping its visor and raising the hat off the head in an upward-forward motion, being sure to conceal the inside of the hat in the process. In the instances when a hat should be tipped or slightly raised, a gentleman should hold the middle-front of the visor with his thumb on the underside and his index finger on the topside, then pinch-pull the visor in two slight, abbreviated, forward motions. When a young gentleman is inclined towards wearing his visor towards the side over his ear (which looks totally ridiculous on anyone beyond 10 years of age!) or towards the back of his head, he should remove the hat by its crown whenever his hat is to be removed, and bow his head slightly on those occasions when he would tip or raise his hat.

A Rastafarian, who furls his locks and tucks them into an over-sized, knitted beret or an over-sized cap with a brim, does not remove his head covering when entering a building, a home, a holy place, during the singing of an anthem, or upon encountering a lady-friend on the street, for example, for his head covering is treated similar to a turban. And no one would expect a wearer of a turban to each time unwrap his head covering, only to have to wrap it up again, as he goes about his various and sundry activities during the course of his day.

In a gesture of respect and humility, men of the Christian faith are expected to remove their hats when entering a place of worship. A practitioner of the Jewish faith, however, is expected to cover his head with a kippah (also spelled “kipa” and “kippa;” “kippot is the plural form) or yarmulke during times of prayer, while performing some religious act, or while eating; and it is the belief of some Orthodox Jews that the head should be covered at all times—even when bathing. Haredi Jews, in addition to wearing a kippah, wear a traditional talleth, a large-brimmed hat, generally in black, during prayer and while outside. Men of the Islamic faith wear a taqiyah (called “kufi” in the United States and Britain) in emulation of Mohammad, whose companions were said to have never been seen without some form of head covering. The taqiyah, or prayer cap, is worn during Jumu’ah, or Friday prayers, at the mosque, and during daily salat, prayers at home. In Arab countries, a keffiyah/keffiyeh (also known as “shemagh”), typically made of a plain white fabric, red-and-white checkered cloth (or of black-and-white checks, primarily in Palestine and Jordan) is worn with an “egal,” the black double-corded headpiece that sits atop a gentleman’s head and holds the keffiyah in place, is not removed when entering buildings, during prayer, or when dining, for example. It is worn as part of an Arab gentleman’s dress—typically a thobe, but also with Western suits—and is removed only when the gentleman undresses. Likewise, a gentleman who dons a turban or some other form of head wrap does not doff it during the course of his day. Such headdresses are removed only when the wearer undresses at the end of his day.

The general rule regarding the wearing of hats in buildings is that hats are kept on in public buildings and taken off in residential buildings. A gentleman, for example, is not required to remove his hat when entering buildings that are clearly public in nature such as hotel lobbies, department stores, airport terminals, train stations, etc. And when riding elevators in such buildings, he keeps his hat on, partly because of the public/residential rule, but also because such elevators are oftentimes crowded, and the most space-efficient (and safe) place for a man’s hat under such circumstances is atop his head, where it is less likely to be crushed. (Given the quasi-residential nature of hotels, it would be polite for a gentleman to remove his hat in the elevator if he encounters a lady therein, though such a courtesy is not required). When a gentleman enters the lobby of a residential building, however, he removes his hat. And if he rides the elevator in such a building, he holds his hat in his hands. And, of course, a gentleman should remove his hat before entering a private residence—even his own. The only exception to this rule is for men who cover their heads indoors for cultural and/or religious reasons or traditions.

Whether bars and restaurants are exceptions to the public/private-space hat rule has been the subject of much debate for years, especially with the resurgence of hats, coupled with the notions of individuality, which are part and parcel to life in the 21st century. Much of the confusion stems from two competing customs that collide at bars and restaurants: That a man should remove his hat when eating or drinking indoors; and that men’s hats need not be removed in public places. Paintings and photographs from the middle to late 19th century routinely depict men, impeccably garbed in full white tie dress and top hats, wining and dining in the company of elegant ladies. But by the 1930s, it was regarded as in poor taste for a man not to remove his hat upon being seated in a restaurant. Clearly, trying to make one’s way to the countertop of a crowded bar with one’s hat in one’s hand is probably not a good idea for the hat. But taking one’s seat with one’s hat upon one’s head in The Palm Court restaurant of New York’s Plaza Hotel is an entirely different matter altogether. And since heads are not made just for hats, but also for thinking, it would be wise for a 21st-century gentleman to apply common sense as he makes his way through the nebulous environs of hat etiquette in public spaces. Indulging in a hamburger at Burger King while wearing a “Homburg” is less likely to turn heads than dining on osso bucco while wearing a “Borsalino” in New York’s The Pierre. And as stated elsewhere in this book, manners are more about others than about self. A gentleman, therefore, must seriously consider whether his actions or inaction is likely to offend others. And if the answer is a resounding “Yes!” he should adjust accordingly. There are some men who seek out conflicts and are ready to engage them at the drop of a hat. But such is not the behavior of gentlemen.

When eating at a sidewalk cafe or an open eatery in a plaza or at a picnic, for example, a man need not remove his hat.

While traveling via public conveyances, a gentleman is not required to remove his hat. On a city bus, for example, he does not remove his hat. Nor does he remove his hat upon entering a taxi. On trains and planes, however, because of the seat-designs typically found in such conveyances, most men remove their brimmed hats, more for comfort than for etiquette (though wearing a brimmed hat on an airplane, even if comfort were not an issue, would strike many people as “odd”). Soft hats such as berets and beanys are generally not removed while using public conveyances, including trains and planes. On a luxury liner or any seagoing civilian vessel, a man wears his hat while on deck, of course, but he is also allowed to wear his hat below deck while traversing the vessel’s public spaces. Upon entering a private cabin, however, he removes his hat.

When riding in a private vehicle, a gentleman should remove his hat if there are female passengers. And no driver should wear a brimmed hat since brims obstruct peripheral vision, thereby compromising safety.

Members of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, also known as the Shriners, established in 1870 as an appendage to the Freemasons, are known for their donning of fezzes. In additional to their ceremonial protocol regarding the fez, the general rule is that it should not be worn in a place where a member would not introduce his mother, his wife, his sister, or his daughter.

When delivering a speech outdoors, a gentleman should remove his hat—if the weather is good. In inclement weather, however, he should beg the indulgence of his audience and deliver his speech under the protection of his hat.

A gentleman who wishes to view the annual Royal Ascot from within the Royal Enclosure must wear formal morning dress: There are no exceptions. As such, he must wear a top hat, whether in gray or black, though most men seem to seize the opportunity to wear their gray top hats at daytime events since, of course, only black is appropriate at night. While in the Enclosure, a gentleman does not remove his hat, even if engaged in conversation with a lady, the logic being that if all men who engaged in conversation with ladies at the Ascot removed their hats, they would all have their hats in their hands—instead of debonairly perched upon their heads—for most of the five days of races. Besides, given the crowds in the Royal Enclosure, hand-held top hats, unless they are the collapsible type, would probably end up crushed. And just in case those justifications did not suffice, the official dress code of the Royal Enclosure requires that top hats be kept on—except when in the facility or in private boxes. (If visiting from overseas, the formal-wear equivalent of the culture of the visitor is accepted, and military men are allowed to wear their service dress uniforms).

A gentleman removes his hat during the playing of a national anthem, even if it is that of a foreign nation, or the passing of the flag of any nation, especially his own. And if a man wearing a hat happens upon a funeral cortege, he should stop at the point of encounter and remove his hat, being sure to bow his head slightly as the hearse passes by. If time permits (and it oftentimes does), he should remain standing at the point of encounter, bowing his head on occasion until the entire cortege has passed. Gentlemen in the cortege, however, should wear their hats, taking them off at the gravesite when the coffin is being lowered into the earth or placed into its crypt. In the case of a military funeral, civilian men should remove their hats during the playing of taps, and servicemen should follow military protocol.

At outdoor events, where prayers are offered, whether as invocations or benedictions, hats should be removed and heads lowered. In general, hats should be removed for photographs.

Men in active duty in the military, as well as those who wear hats as part of their professions, should follow the established military and professional protocols regarding the donning and doffing of hats and other head coverings. A fireman for example, no matter how genteel, would not remove his helmet when entering a house in a rescue effort!

The left side is the traditional side for attaching pins, badges, patches, etc., to the band of a man’s hat, whereas the right side is used by women.

Unlike most women’s hats, which are properly worn only until dusk since they are usually designed not only for style but also for providing protection from the sun, most men’s hats can be worn at night—except, of course, those made of straw, which are designed and constructed of materials to protect the wearer from the sun. (A lady is also allowed to wear a winter hat, which is designed for providing warmth, at night. And skullcaps may be worn at night).

It has been said, “In the land of the blind, one-eyed man is king.” [In regione caecorum rex est luscus]. In the 21st century, with its relaxed, live-and-let-live approach to life, a well-mannered young man can write his own social ticket. And knowing how to handle his hat with courtesy, style, and elegance will undoubtedly ensure his first-class accommodations. When a man raises or removes his hat as a gesture of respect to a lady, he uplifts her in one fell swoop. And from her elevated vantage point, he appears more beautiful, more desirable, more special.

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