More Talk About Why We Don’t Wear Hats Anymore

(Photo: davidd)

(Photo: davidd)

From Babak Givi, an assistant professor at NYU’s Dept. of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery:

Dear Freakonomicers,

I am writing in regards to your January 9th podcast ["Are We Ready to Legalize Drugs? And Other FREAK-quently Asked Questions"] and the question about hats. Why people used to wear hats? Stephen made a comment about religious roots of hats and Steven talked about fashion.

I am sure there are links with both, but I would like to note that for the most of the human history, hats were protective garments. We are not spending as much time as we used to out in the open environment. If you spend most of the time outside, you will soon realize that similar to the rest of your body, you have to protect your head from the sun, wind, rain, or snow; but most importantly from the sun. Even now, when we spend most of our time inside our manmade structures, skin cancers are the most common type of cancer in humans. Furthermore, the most common area for developing skin cancers is head and neck, which happens to be the most exposed area of human body, as long as you are not a strict nudist. The effects of ultraviolet rays on developing skin cancers is beyond doubt.  Lightly pigmented skins are extremely sensitive to the sun and with enough exposure most people will develop skin cancers. Hats, similar to the rest of clothing items, protect our skin. In addition, less sunlight will delay development and progression of cataracts (point for wide brim hats). I think our ancestors had developed the habit of wearing hats out of necessity not fashion or religion. But of course through the millennia, we start adding religious, fashion, and symbolic meanings to wearing hats.

Interestingly, people who don’t have much sun exposure and suddenly have an intense exposure for a few hours are more at risk for developing skin cancers. Thus, I would recommend that Dr. Levitt consider wearing a hat when he is playing a game of golf on a sunny day. It’s not fashion, it’s not religion, it’s a health precaution.

Thanks, Dr. Givi — good point.

One more point unrelated to this e-mail but having to do with our FAQ episodesBecause they are primarily just “mailbag” episodes — Levitt and I trying to respond to listener questions — they are inherently much less researched and complete than a typical Freakonomics Radio. They are more like a call-in talk show than, say, a news magazine. That said, we inevitably fail to frame certain questions as they should be framed.

A good example is our discussion of the U.S. Postal Service in the same episode that Dr. Givi wrote to us about. We talked about a number of ways the USPS could improve itself — but, as many of you pointed out in e-mails, the USPS is severely limited by its federal commission. So some of the improvements and changes we suggested are simply not allowed as the USPS is currently configured.

It’s a tradeoff, I guess — we put out these casual Q&A’s once in a while, which seem to have a certain value; but they are necessarily not the same type of reporting and analysis as the standard episodes (which, surely, also make omissions and mistakes now and again, though they are more preventable in this context). It’s a tradeoff I am happy to live with — are you?

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COMMENTS: 32


  1. Wim ten Brink says:

    I actually have a hat (a Fedora) and I do wear it when I’m outside! So yes, Great advise!

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  2. Pat McGee says:

    Now that you explicitly point out the difference in research, I can see it. Before that, I just saw that you sometimes were right on the mark, sometimes way off. And I learned to take everything with a grain of salt.

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  3. wearer of many hats says:

    I will never forget one experience I had going to see Shari Lewis do her Lambchop and Chop sticks thing at a department store. I was around 3-4 at the time. Forgot where but we ended up in the hat department and my cousin and I ended up trying on all the hats and wigs. It was hysterical and we could not stop laughing. Wrote this add for my husband not that long ago about wearing many hats following that Russian fairy tale. Guess there is some truth to it.

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  4. Shane L says:

    Good point by Babak. I’m guessing also that in times past when people spent a lot of time out of doors and needed hats to protect themselves from sun, rain, heat or cold, they were probably less likely to take their hats off publicly? I ask because in modern times I imagine people don’t wear hats because they don’t like their hair becoming disheveled. If you never take your hat off and there is no social expectation for you to do so, you needn’t worry about messy hair. If, though, you expect to be hatless on arrival at work or socialising, you may be concerned about the state of your hat-disheveled head!

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    • Kate says:

      This is why gentlemen also carry combs in their pocket. :)

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    • James says:

      There’s another thing: at various points in history/culture, it was the fashion to basically glue hair in place with products ranging from animal manure to Brylcreem to various styling gels. The extreme might be the 18th century periwig. (With a hat worn atop it!) But with hair so glued, disheveled hair would not seem to be much of a problem.

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      • Shane L says:

        That reminds me, a dead body was found preserved in a peat bog in Ireland, dating from between 392 BC and 201 BC, with “gel” in his hair:

        “… his hair was spiked with pine resin (a very early form of hair gel). Furthermore, the trees from which the resin was sourced only grow in Spain and south-west France, indicating the presence of long distance trade routes.”
        http://irisharchaeology.ie/2011/08/irish-bog-bodies-recent-discoveries/

        People went a long way to look after their hairdos in ancient times, it seems!

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  5. Quinton says:

    Love the FAQs (assuming it was a non-rhetorical question)

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  6. Enter your name... says:

    I especially liked this question about hats.

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  7. Pharrell Williams says:

    I don’t understand this post.

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    • Pharrell Williams says:

      Seriously? You guys didn’t see me at the Grammys with my ridiculous Smokey the Bear/Arby’s hat?

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  8. Nelson says:

    As a mature male with Irish roots and typical male pattern baldness, I can personally underscore the simple physical protection of a good hat. Living in Utah without my old full head of hair now makes grabbing a hat before going outside in either the summer or winter essential to my comfort and well being. Fashion and social considerations take a distant second place to simple personal comfort.

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  9. James says:

    I have to disagree with Dr. Givi’s hypothesis. I think the flaw in his reasoning is that most people already have a natural means of protecting their heads from sun exposure: hair. Only those who’ve lost that natural protection, either naturally or through fashion (as I experienced during a stay on Parris Island) really need added protection in most circumstances.

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    • Phil Persinger says:

      James–

      I trust you enjoyed your vacation on Parris. I understand the food is wonderful there and the staff polite.

      If you read Richard Sennett’s “The Fall of Public Man,” you’ll find an extended discussion of public dressing habits over the past 300-400 years. Sennett’s thesis is that over time we have blurred the distinction between domestic informality and public display in terms of dress and behavior. So men wear fewer hats and women fewer gloves in public– and those items that are worn are more likely to be on the order of toques, ball caps and ski gloves. And let’s not talk about dress on airliners….

      But still your comment may be onto something: many blame JFK for the disappearance of fedoras and derbies (I’m old enough to remember the no-hat vibe from his inauguration); his immediate predecessors– Eisenhower, Truman, FDR, Hoover– did not (how to put this delicately?) have to worry much about hat-hair. JFK did have that problem and was vain enough to care.

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      • Steve Cebalt says:

        Hi James and Phil:

        I lost my hair twice: Once to Uncle Same, like James; and later, to Mother Nature. The only time I miss it is in early spring, when I get my first scalp burn. It only takes MINUTES to get a burn after the long winter, no matter what precautions I seem to take, so I think the good doctor raises a valid point. As for changing fashions, I like to think bald people have many advantages over the haird, including the JFK hat-hair issue. I remember when I found a comb in a drawer and smiled and threw it away; making fun of guys at the gym blow-drying their hair; and…no haircuts! And, no falloff in attention from the Ladies. From zero when I had hair to…. the same now. So by my math, hair makes no difference in that regard! :)

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      • Phil Persinger says:

        Steve–

        May we assume that your tonsure has similarly had no effect on your Presidential prospects?

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  10. Jane Eyre says:

    Protection against cold has been mentioned, but should be stressed more. One loses a lot of body heat through one’s head. People used to wear hats (nightcaps) to bed in the days when bedrooms were either unheated or had inadequate fires.

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  11. Joe McDaniel says:

    Highly recommend Tilley hats. Guaranteed for life! Nice style. Excellent sun & weather performance. I hated wearing hats until my head became hair-challenged.

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  12. Sam says:

    I work in an office so I rarely get to spend much time in the outdoors, but I still wear a hat quite ofte. However, it is usually out of necessity. For instance, in the last week or so before I am due for a haircut… It’s just easier to throw on a hat in the morning than to try and get my hair looking presentable.

    I always enjoy the Q&A episodes. I’ve noticed that they are not as research based, but I like discussions that bring out new perspectives. I big part of my job involves solving problems by looking past the obvious notions that have become standard. I really hadn’t given much thought to the business of the USPS until I heard this episode. However, after listening I went home and began doing some research on the USPS and how they operate. Episodes like this one are what got me interested in Freakonomics. It’s easy to get lost in the traditional approach to the issues we face (or even issues that we don’t realize we face), so it’s always good to hear some alternative ideas… Keep them coming!

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  13. Blake says:

    I enjoy the FAQ episodes, and am quite happy with the tradeoff.

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  14. P Schmidt says:

    Given the good doctor’s insight, could the answer to the hat question be sunglasses? I, for example, rarely wear a hat, but I use my sunglasses everyday. I think an argument could be made that the rise in popularity of sunglasses (in the middle third of the 20th century) reduced the demand for old-fashioned eye protection. I don’t know what data sets could possibly exist to prove this, but if they were available, I’m sure they’d plot beautifully into a bow-tie graph.

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    • P Schmidt says:

      Btw- I live in a very warm climate, so there’s rarely a concern for heat-loss. Also, I always enjoy the extemporaneous nature of the FAQs.

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  15. Nik says:

    I despite of people sometimes. “Here is a free thing. Wait. It isn’t perfect. Well then I must complain in the strongest possible terms” The internet is a wonderful tool. But it is making us increasingly unappreciative and unrealistic.

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  16. Kelvin Kao says:

    I vaguely remember reading somewhere that the hat went away after people started to drive, where there wasn’t as much head room. Not sure if that was true.

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  17. Kate says:

    Besides, men look really nice in hats. (And stupid in baseball caps, unless they happen to be playing baseball at the time.)

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  18. Alaska Pete says:

    I enjoy the FAQ format. Regarding the hat thing, while listening to that podcast I said to my wife “What about survival? Staying warm, protecting yourself.” This is almost certainly because I moved to Alaska over a decade ago and went from being someone who virtually never wore a hat and actively resisted doing so, to someone who always has one on his head or at least at the ready in his coat pocket. It is a critical survival tool here in bush Alaska and has nothing to do with fashion, religion, etc.

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  19. Mark Sanders says:

    We have a hat museum here in Portland, OR where I live near. Taking the tour, the women who showed us around stated that women especially wore hats until around the 20s or 30s when shampoo was invented and/or became popular. Before then the way women had to clean their hair by brushing it so many times a day (one or hundred brushes at a time, something like that). I assume men also needed to keep their hair reasonably clean. Also, not directly related to this post, women’s hats became smaller after the turn of the century because of the advent of the car. Those big, broad-rimmed hats were too easy to blow off the head as cars got faster and faster.

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  20. robyn g says:

    all I have to say is “speak for yourself.” I love hats. Goin to Austria 8th European Conference on Gender Equality in Higher Education or, at least, I finished off that part and sent out proposal. Now if only the big money investors in the market will turn their pessimistic tune into one of taking charge of their own fate, I might get to go.

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  21. On a role says:

    PS. Thanks once more.

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  22. Chris says:

    Ballcaps > Hats

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  23. J. Bruce stewart says:

    Very interesting comments and a very interesting subject. My take is that there are a combination of reasons hat usage is different from the past. (However, I am not so sure this assumption is even correct.)

    When we discuss people wearing hats the context must be taken into consideration. A simple way to think about context is the people, the place, and the thing, goal, or function that is trying to be achieved. For instance, I would argue that hat wearing amongst the youth has significantly increased. Anecdotally if you go back and look at some movies from the mid 20th century you will notice the general absence of hats. Conversely, the youth of today are hopelessly enamored with the wearing of hats. Particularly baseball caps.

    On the other hand as an executive in the federal government located in Washington, D.C. It is rather strange to see other professionals in hats during moderate weather. Of course, everyone wears a hat when it’s cold.

    Context is everything…

    Another factor to consider is that most hat wearing is not function related but instead is in fact herd related. It is nothing more than a fad impacted by the whims of fashion. And fads and fashion go in and out of favor as rapidly as the stars twinkle in the night sky.

    Ahh, it’s really the context embodied by the people, place, and thing

    People- young people wear ball caps; old people don’t wear hats to work, but wear them to cover bald heads.

    Place- people wear hats when it’s cold and when it’s hot. This is universal.

    Thing-People don’t wear hats in the context of work anymore because it was a fad or fashion statement that served not general utility or function. For most people whether you wore a hat or not made no difference to how well you did your job.

    Of course on the flop side–in the early days of the NFL hats were not much of an issue. But, in today’s game they have moved from initially being a fad to being essential because they add utility to the function or thing trying to be achieved.

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