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The cap is red with a noticeably boxy front and a shoelace strung around where the dome meets the brim. In large white lettering, it reads “Make America Great Again,” and it signals to strangers almost everything they need to know about you. “If there's some type of message or signifier on a hat, seemingly the person unconsciously embodies that message,” says Dawnn Karen, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology who teaches classes on fashion psychology.
Throw that red cap in the garbage, put on this navy one embroidered with the letters N-Y, and take a walk around your neighborhood. You’ll get high-fives or side-eyes, depending on where you live, and the chatty cashier at the coffeeshop may ask how you’re feeling about this season. In the ‘60s, a floppy wool beret, inspired by Che Guevara’s hat of choice, makes you one in a sea of protesters preaching peace. Your 2017 counterpart may perch a pink knit cap with two ears on their head and create an overhead tableau like the largest bottle of Pepto Bismol is spilling out of the Washington Monument.
The hat is particularly potent “in terms of a rally or a protest because the way we capture events is from above, it's a drone view,” says Jayna Zweiman, cofounder of the Pussyhat Project. Hats also have a way of ascribing qualities to you while simultaneously stripping you of your unique identity. They’re powerful because they can obscure you — or so seemingly every celebrity trying to make a mad dash through an airport believes — and “allows groups to operate as one unit,” says Karen.
That power isn’t lost on those who make hats to be brandished in a particular way. “Headgear is a really strong symbol because it’s close to where we look into each other's eyes,” says Zweiman, who’s clearly thinking a dozen steps ahead.
(And if you really want to go here, “the hat goes over the third eye,” Karen points out to me. It meets up with the “crown chakra,” which is the portal through which we can reach deeper personal connection.)
Zweiman certainly wasn’t the first with to realize the potential of hats, though. Headwear’s ability to conjure groups out of fabric is rooted deep in history. The Phrygian cap, the slouchy pointy-tipped cousin to the beanie you might associate with The Smurfs, was worn by former slaves to symbolize emancipation during the ancient Roman empire. In post-Julius Caesar Rome, Brutus, and those he lead to assassinate Caesar, used the Phrygian cap as a symbol for freedom. It’s alternatively known as a liberty cap. Similarly, the Gandhi cap became a symbol of Indian independence in 1918 and reemerged in 2011 as a symbol for India’s anti-corruption movement.
“Until the 1960s, the article of clothing that performed the most important role in indicating social distinctions among men was the hat,” Diana Crane writes in the book Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing. Crane points to the fact that hats are much more affordable pieces of clothing, which made it an ideal way for people to “claim and maintain, rather than to confuse, social status.”
Before the 1960s, hats were a “social obligation,” says milliner Gigi Burris. Englishmen in the beginning of the 19th century wore hats to signify they were part of the upper class. Bowler hats were “worn by businessmen, particularly when they visited the countryside,” says Virginie Promeyrat, founder of New York-based millinery House of Lafayette.
The hat’s relatively affordable nature was what eventually wrote its downfall. “It started out as a way for the rich and powerful to show their status, but ironically the hat helped to break the social barriers of the class system,” says Promeyrat. If people of lower social strata are suddenly able to afford the clothes of the wealthy, they become worthless to the people using hats to surround themselves with rarified air.
It’s a possible explanation for why more recently we’ve seen hats come to symbolize grassroots movements. The Pussyhat, in particular, went even beyond affordability. The platonic ideal of the Pussyhat is hand-knit and “a gift from a knitter to a marcher,” says Zweiman. She adds the Pussyhat is an intentionally simplistic design to let knitters of all experience levels make one. It shouldn’t cost more than $15 in materials to DIY one. It’s an easy and cheap way to create a silent bond between protestors.
The hat’s ability to bring people together is most apparent in the sporting world, where every team has a logo cap; baseball players wear them as part of their uniform. And while hockey and football players have to wear helmets for protection — to mitigate the damage from all the concussions they're definitely getting — and not team spirit, they also sport headgear emblazoned with their franchise logo.
“It's a visual cue you are a team player,” says Doug Gardner, a sport and performance psychologist. The link between fandom and religion is well-trod territory, and it’s probably no coincidence that headwear plays a prominent role in both. “Hats provide an opportunity for a group of individuals not to go rogue, not to go selfish, not to be too individualistic in a negative way,” Gardner explains.
Gardener says that the “concept” of the rally cap, which is when a struggling sports team collectively flips their hats inside out, “really allows people to stop being selfish.” The rally cap distracts people from their own individualistic ambitions and puts everything in the context of the group and its goals, says Gardener.
It’s not that much of a reach to say those putting on the symbolic hats of our time are doing the same thing. Hats gives you an instant connection with total strangers, much in the same way sports hats connect us to icons on the field and fellow fans around the world. Hats make you “part of the group, part of the team,” says Gardener. People wear them because they “think this is going to help the team,” he explains.
And what’s behind the use of hats for athletes and fans alike is completely analogous to what we see happening in other communities that use headwear. We can say same thing about hats with political affiliations. When you pop on a Pussyhat, you’re joining a team; a group of people all working toward a goal. Wearers of the “Make America Great Again” hats espouse “winning,” so much, in fact, that they may even tire of it. What they all have in common is the hat as tribal signal.
Hats throughout history have always been an important way for someone to perch part of their identity on their head. Only in rare situations — like kings and queens, who wear crowns — do we see headwear represent an individualistic piece. Instead, a hat makes you part of the collective identity.