Move and Shake: Solidarity Wears a Hat

Oakland, CA, the town in which O’Lover Hats was born and continues to thrive in is a people’s town, full of entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity as well as mind expanding diversity and creativity.  The energy here has been electric these days, with our globally broadcast Occupy Oakland movement and the November 2nd General Strike that boasted 10’s of thousands marching, closing down Broadway, the City Center and eventually the Port, the 5th largest in the country.  There has been violence yet the most palpable sentiment is passion and self respect in the demand that an inequitable economic system be reexamined for reconstruction.

The current occupy movement links with the lineage of activists and lay people rising up to oppose inequality.  As a hatmaker and social historian, I am interested in how hats have both been a visual emblem for these movements as well as a vehicle in themselves for political dissent.

Emmeline Pankhurst Addresses Crowd

It wasn’t long ago that women had no voice in the political sphere, but to influence their husbands behind closed doors.  1903 was when the votes-for-women movement exploded in England and North America.  In the early years of the 20th century, the suffregettes, generators for voting equality, looked sharp in hats while they swarmed the streets in protest, were beatup and arrested by police and held their stance that women were citizens and deserved to have their voice be heard in the political arena.

Though at this time hats were worn daily by all, rather than for political sentiment, the images of these women in their hats engenders them as participants in society, thus subliminally affirming their cause.  While fighting for rights, their proper dress positions them to be self respecting amidst inhumane opposition.

A cultural realm where hats have boldly made political statement is that of stage and vaudeville.  In hats’ lengthy relationship with human heads, they have consistently distinguished both class and character and consequently been a prop to poke fun and comment on the social stratosphere.

The earliest vaudeville hat acts, known as “chapeaugraphy” involving a single performer with a large felt brim with a hole in the middle.  The artist would quickly twist and turn and manipulate the hat into a variety of shapes to create caricatures, sometimes as many as fifty in a ten minute performance.  These shows were riotously funny to crowds and held great popularity at different times from the 1750’s to the early 20th century.  Like most humor, it was the tension between saying what is obvious, but not always appropriate, providing the public with acts that highlight the taboo of rich and poor.

The bowler, one of the few hats consistently chosen by stage performers, was emphatically employed by Charlie Chaplin in his class satires during the 1920s and 30s.  His worn out, beaten hat brought emphasis to the yearning for dignity of down and out common men.  It infused his disheveled and trodden on characters with an ironic sense of importance.  These political dimensions rode heavy beneath the comedy, making the bowler a charged image that is still used today.

The beret, a hat of Basque origins and romantically associated with the French where it was commonly worn, was transformed into an emblem of revolution through the image of guerilla fighter, Che Guevara.  Though the hat is used by special military forces worldwide, due to Che’s iconic status it is also revered as a symbol for one who stands up for the people.  It was chosen by the Guardian Angels who patrol urban streets worldwide to offer protection to civilians from crimes and injustices.

The beret was officially part of the Black Panther movement, supporting the guerilla position of these determined activists who stood for justice from the police brutality and systemic racism rampant in the 60’s and 70’s.  Founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the group held headquarters in Oakland, Ca.  Though these days, here in Oakland, one is as likely to see a brightly colored mohawk as a personal political statement, I would love to see the 99% movement maintain a lineage with previous local protest movements, such as the Panther Party.  O’Lover Hats will be spreading solidarity by carrying the People’s Beret through the winter.  You can purchase one of these black wool hats at any of O’Lover Hats upcoming shows.  Make it a statement to share with the world.

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