Monday, October 31, 2011

Nice Hat!

Valery, Madelaine and The Nice Hat
When I was in Venice Beach last year visiting relatives in Los Angeles I bought a hat.

It wasn't an especially unusual or remarkable hat.  It was just one of several dozen piled high in one of many little souvenir shops along the boardwalk.  Or so I thought.

That hat has garnered me more attention than any other single article of clothing I've ever worn, including all of the many hats I've worn over the years.  I'm a 'hat guy' if you will.  I've always liked hats.  I have owned more than a few and have worn them all with some pride at one time or another.

But, something about this hat is different.  Just about everyone who has ever seen me in this hat has taken the time to remark on how much they like it.  That's a lot of comments!  They come from friends and co-workers, of course, but also from lots of perfect strangers--like a parking lot attendant or random people on the street.  Just yesterday while out walking, I saw someone staring at me and when I looked back, he smiled and mouthed, across the busy noisy street, "Nice hat"!

"Nice hat"?  Really?  It makes me wonder what it is that prompts them to make that particular comment.  After all, I am used to standing out a bit.  Some people will comment on my wedding ring (unique and simple) ties (always fashionably thin, thank you Mad Men) or my pen (I have many) or even my watch (a $9.99 Academy special), but this hat has taken the prize, so to speak.

At first, I thought it was because so few men wear hats these days.  But that is actually changing.  A lot of men are wearing hats again, though most are young hipsters wearing some small version of the 'old-fashioned' fedora.  Many men wear the plaid version of that old style, but most wear something very similar to the one I have, which is a simple blond straw hat with a black band about an inch wide.  Oh, and mine has some feathers.

You know, I think it's the feathers.  A small spray of colored feathers are stuck in on the right side, one of which happens to lean over in a delicious feminine curve.  The others back it up with a bit of stiffness.  It's not the kind of feathers, though, just the fact that they are there.  No one else has feathers in their hat.

But what is that saying?  Feathers?  What is it about them that prompts even the parking lot attendant to say something?  What makes a total stranger stop in the street and say "Nice hat?"

For a long time I thought people were so startled by the sight of an old guy in a feathered hat that they couldn't help but make a remark.  And "nice hat" is the first thing that comes to mind, even though they were probably thinking "Are you kidding me?  You look ridiculous in that hat!"

That could be true, I guess.  I never assume that folks are thinking anything but the worst about me.  But that's unnecessarily self-deprecating, especially in this case, after getting so many comments about the hat.  I have come to accept the fact that most folks are actually complimenting me.  But for what?

I've thought a lot about it and concluded that it's about a sense of style.  And it's not like I am a particularly stylish guy.  Ask my brother David or my Bride.  In fact, it's just the opposite.  It isn't about me or my style.  It's about style in general, in the world at large.

I think that people are so hungry for the visual appeal of someone dressed with a sense of style that when they see one, they often feel compelled to make a remark.  I think that it's simply a spontaneous reaction--an irrepressible expression of gratitude--for brightening their field of vision.

"Thanks for standing out!" seems to me to be the most literal translation of "Nice hat"!

Well, it's not like I have to work at it.  In fact, where I work, on a college campus, it is actually pretty easy to stand out.  My hat is more than enough to make me visible, especially when compared to a sea of t-shirts, khaki shorts and tennis shoes.

It's come down to this:  The uniform absence of style in the way that most people dress has us all (even those without a sense of style) hungry for some small bit of visual appeal.  Even though we hardly know it, we are all hungry to 'taste' something bright and fresh and flavorful for our eye.

That's the reason for style in the first place.  It sets us apart.  And that, sadly, is also the reason that so few people have a sense of style.  Most people just don't want to be set apart.  Most people just want to blend in, to become a part of the wave and avoid the crest.  Style is turmoil, and to be different is to be in the crest.  It's where the breaking up of 'normal' creates style.  It is a way of expressing the desire to be different.

I am not only not afraid of being different, I seek it out.  So, now when someone I don't know smiles, waves and says, "Nice hat!" I'll remember that they are the ones I do it for.

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