With its cool temperatures, brisk breezes, and cloudy skies, October is the perfect month for…accessories! If you’re a typical guy, the word “accessories” might conjure images of handbags, jewelry, or any number of items more commonly used by women. However, while those things are indeed accessories, there are also a number of men’s items that can add charm, sophistication, and class to an outfit. This month, given the cooler temperatures, I’ll focus specifically on hats (and implicitly on scarves as well).
The primary use of hats and scarves, at least in cold weather, is probably to retain heat, so the first trick to choosing an accessory is to make sure it actually does what it’s supposed to. That may seem obvious, but for the hat or scarf to fit the outfit it also has to look like it provides warmth. For example, I recently saw a guy wearing a Panama hat on a cold and cloudy day. Because Panamas are typically worn in warm weather near coasts, they guy actually looked colder and more out of place than he would have with a bare head. The same could be said about many kinds of loose, thin scarves that are currently out there; they might look cool but before adding one to an ensemble make sure it looks autumnal or winter-esque too. This is a pretty basic rule, but we have to start somewhere.
The next two rules for choosing a hat or a scarf go hand in hand: make sure your selection exhibits cohesion with the rest of the outfit, and make sure to bring a sense of history to your choice. First, cohesion means ensuring that the accessory you’ve chosen blends well with the colors, cuts, and (most importantly) formality of the rest of the outfit. If matching colors and cuts should be fairly obvious, formality may not be. With the exception of the baseball cap, hats tend to dress an outfit up. That can be great, but keep in mind that wearing a beret or a flat cap with grubby wear can look incongruous. Though it’s not necessary to wear a suit and tie with most hats, it is worth trying to spread formal and informal pieces throughout the outfit so you don’t look like a casual dude with a bit of gentleman perched atop your head.
Similarly, bringing a sense of history to your hat and scarf selections is essential. Before choosing what kind of accessory you’re going to wear (or buy), ask yourself when that item was commonly worn. Most likely the item’s heyday was not today, due to the waning use of accessories and the increasingly casual nature of men’s fashion in the western world. However, depending on which time period you’re drawing from you can sometimes get away with a slightly anachronistic piece.
For example, for a long time I felt that fedoras were a serious fashion faux pas. Though some famous people manage to look decent in a fedora from time to time, I usually saw them on Indian Jones fans’ head. Fatally, these fans often pared their hats with t-shirts, or (worse) sneakers. The problem with this combination isn’t simply that it illogically mixes layers of formality, but also that during the fedora’s golden age t-shirts were thought of as undergarments. Consequently, a fedora would never have been paired with a t-shirt, historically speaking, and if most people haven’t watched enough film noir to consciously know that, they will recognize a person who has no sense of history when it comes to choosing an accessory.
Recently, however, I have seen a few (admittedly older) men wearing fedoras with more somber suits, and I was surprised at how sharp these men looked. I’m not sure that a young person could pull the same thing off (again, unless you’re a celeb on the red carpet), but the incident drove home the point that with the right outfit you can get away with a lot.
Still, history is important and many kinds of hats only work as costumes. For example, unless you’re a magician, a flamboyant celebrity, or the star of your local production of A Christmas Carol, you probably shouldn’t be wearing a top hat. Assuming the wearer makes a careful selection, an unofficial rule of thumb I like to follow is this: the hat style you’re thinking of needs to have been common (a.k.a. not a costume) during the lifetime of someone who is alive right now. That gives you at least 70 or 80 years into the past to draw on, and potentially even more.
Picking an accessory is tricky, not least because wearing this type of clothing is increasingly becoming an anomaly. However, asking yourself about an item’s functionality, formality, and historical origins should at least provide a basis to work from as you go out into the cold winter. And remember, there is no fashion neutrality.