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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  1. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. On a role says:

    PS. Thanks once more.

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  6. Chris says:

    Ballcaps > Hats

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  7. 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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