The History of Men’s Hats, and the Emergence of the Baseball Cap as the “Go-To” Hat of the 21st Century


There was a time, up until the 1940s—and even the 1950s and early 1960s in some regions of the world—when a man in public, even at night and in good weather, was not considered fully dressed unless wearing a hat. Those days are gone.

The tricorne cornered the hat market for much of the 18th century. Throughout the 19th century, the top hat was “top dog.” And the fedora was adored by men for much of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. But if there is a hat for the young man of the 21st century, it is the baseball cap.

The concept of the hat has been around for millennia. The earliest known depiction of a hat occurs in an Egyptian tomb painting at Thebes; the painting depicts a man wearing a conically shaped straw hat. The petasos (also spelled “petasus”), the traditional, floppy-brimmed sun hat of Thessaly in ancient Greece, is the first known hat to bear a brim. Besides covering and protecting the head, hats, like diadems, have historically been used by men to give the illusion of height and/or tacitly declare status. Whether the pope’s miter, the western lawman’s Stetson, or the dandy’s top hat, hats, especially tall ones, punctuate a gentleman’s appearance with exclamation.

But unlike the panache provided by most hats, the baseball cap is decidedly simple. And it is perhaps its understated design that has led to its ubiquity. Today, the term “baseball cap” has almost become a misnomer since the accessory is worn by men all over the world, many of whom have more interest in soccer than baseball. Then to make matters worse, several sports, such as tennis and golf, have unofficially adopted the baseball cap as the hat of choice. And it is not uncommon to see athletes on the sidelines of their respective sports (that have other designated headgear) wearing baseball caps until called into active play.

In effect a vertically seamed beanie with an attached visor (also called a “bill” or a “beak”), the baseball cap is believed to have derived from the sun bonnets of the 19th century. What is for certain is that by the 1860s, just after the Civil War, when baseball was about to transition from an amateur sport into a professional one, players were already wearing hats that resemble present-day baseball hats. In the 1870s a baseball hat of another style emerged: the pillbox or “Chicago style” baseball cap, which featured a flat top and a visor. But it was the cap with the rounded crown that was being worn by the Brooklyn Excelsiors by the 1860s that would be established as the baseball cap by 1900. Then in the 1940s, when latex rubber replaced buckram as the stiffening agent for the hat’s visor, the baseball cap assumed the shape, construction, and proportions that endure to this day.

The baseball cap is a casual hat; it does not complement formal wear or business wear, for example (though some men insist upon wearing the cap deliberately incongruously—and futilely—in an attempt to make a fashion statement). There are more suitable compliments for such garments. But for much of casual wear, the baseball cap is regarded as the go-to hat. Some men, as a matter of personal preference, insist upon wearing the visor facing backwards. And because of the laid-back nature of the hat, it has become a widely accepted practice. But at the end of the day, a gentleman wearing a hat, no matter how casual it may be, should observe hat-etiquette. Even a baseball cap should be removed from the head when a gentleman enters a private space or pauses to speak to a lady on the street. (See chapter, “Out and About—Manners in Public Places”).

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