TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY K.B. DIXON
Fashion is a language. A fashion choice—voluntary or not—is a statement. These statements can be true, false, revelatory, misleading, ambiguous—whatever they may be, they all tell us something about the person making them. The hat, by virtue of its privileged perch, occupies a special place in fashion’s vocabulary. It is the final piece of the sartorial puzzle, the concluding point in a proclamation of identity, the star placed atop the Christmas tree that is you.
In his book The Ongoing Moment (a stream-of-consciousness amble through the history of photography) Geoff Dyer takes up the subject of the hat—a thing he sees as closely associated with the documentary photography of the 1930s. The hat, which had been essentially a status identifier, was transformed by a decimating depression into an existential emblem of hardship and despair—especially as it appeared in the work of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. “By the 1950s,” however, Dyer writes, “the great era of the hat in photography had passed. Wearing a hat was optional where once it had been almost obligatory, and it was no longer a reliable indicator of the ravages inflicted on men by economic forces beyond their control or understanding. The hat became just a hat.”
This is not a sentiment I have a lot of sympathy for. Sometimes perhaps a hat is just a hat—just as Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar—but most often it is something more. Some are weighed down with more meaning than others, of course, but they are all to one degree or another symbolic things. Sometimes their significations are clear and simple, but more often they are not—they are complex, encrypted, obscure. Properly decoded, they are invariably clues to character. If one era of the hat in photography passed in the 1950s when the hat ceased to be an obligatory accoutrement, a new era began when it became an object of choice. In the 1960s it re-emerged as a character and/or cultural indicator, and it continues as such today.
The hat has long been a source of fascination to me—a fascination born in part out of envy because I cannot wear one myself. (I have some sort of oddly-shaped head and tend to look idiotic in most.) It has made both planned and unplanned appearances in several of my novels (usually in what the professors would call an objective correlativish role) and in my photography as well. This new age of the hat is very much in evidence here in hat-happy Portland and has been for a while, as this handful of street portraits will attest.