By Matt DeckardI've never been too keen on the boater. Yes, it's made of straw and cool for summer and came out long before the soft roll up panama, but it's like wearing an inedible cracker on your head. Although now often viewed as a hat that is functionally terrible and aesthetically comical, the boater became the standard summer hat for millions of men around the world in the early 1900s. It became a staple item in the respectable businessman’s hat wardrobe; in essence, it was, for a time, the summer version of the bowler.Originally, in the mid 1800s, the boater (Also known as a “Sennet” or “Straw”) used to be a seafaring hat that was issued to and worn by British Royal Navy sailors during the summer months. These early boaters were softer than the version we see on the heads of Harold Lloyd and Fred Astaire in the 1920s and 30s because they were made to yield somewhat to the forces of wind and water encountered by a seaman on a long voyage. In its early days keeping the brim flat wasn’t much of a concern, so you'd see sailor after sailor sporting straw hats with warped brims. Many Italian gondoliers still sport versions similar to the original ones worn by British sailors.
As time went by, the boater went from being an item of military issue, to a fashionable and somewhat formal summer accessory. This is reflected in Manners for Men (1897), in which Mrs. C. E. Humphry informed her dapper readers that “For a morning walk in the Park in summer the straw hat, or low hat and tweed suit, are as correct as the black coat and silk hat.” Around the same time, English schools and colleges made the boater into a uniform requirement.Clearly, the boater had successfully made the leap from respectable British military issue headgear to the smart but cumbersome lacquered and pressed straw halos you ended up seeing on American luminaries like David Wark Griffith and Calvin Coolidge, and on businessmen around the Western world.Unsurprisingly, these hats never had the staying power of more comfortable summer hats. Their impractical and comical nature was played up by young students ‘skimming’ them under buses to pass the time (if they were lucky the passing bus would eat the hat); in the 1920s, boaters were turned into a faddish novelty, as college kids began pairing them with raccoon coats and pennants at pep rallies. The farcical side (and thus the end of the more formal application) of this headwear was echoed in the appropriation of the boater by Vaudevillians and carnival barkers. Soon enough, you'd see foam versions worn with red, white, and blue ribbons issued to crowds at political rallies. The seriousness of the hat had clearly left.If it had had more functionality than fashionability, perhaps the boater would have had as long a run as the Panama hats that you can still find at your local department store today. Unlike its winter felt counterparts, the bowler, which originated as a hard gamekeeper’s hat that can be molded to a cranium to perfection with steam, or the soft fedora that's an offshoot of the comfortable slouch hat worn in the field of battle, the boater requires that your head be the shape of the hat or you’re in for an ill fit. It is stiff and has no give. If you try to alter the shape to fit your head, you tend to warp the brim.
And yet, now I like it. I like it because nobody else is wearing it. It stands out on the street corner. Although shunned by well heeled men decades ago and thus best worn with a slightly irreverent air, I find it adds an unexpected jauntiness to a well-tailored suit. In 2016, it can give your look a panache that will certainly make you stand out amongst a sea of businessmen on a crowded summer street.