Watch caps (“tuques” to our friends north of the border), beanies, boonies, bombers, buckets, deerstalkers, Joneses, Stetsons, Borsalinos (trademark of bowhunting legend, Fred Bear), 10X beaver, canvas, twill, straw, nylon mesh, plaid, khaki, orange, camo, with or without earflaps, or with an adjustable plastic tab in the back, no hunter is fully dressed without a hat.
I’ve secretly always wanted to be something of a clothes horse, but finances and physique militated against that. Hats, though, offered an opportunity to exhibit my fashion sense, although even there, with a freak-show-sized head in the elongated shape of some mutant legume (having come by it hereditarily, my father dubbed “Dirigible Dome” in his Depression-era childhood), it was still prudent of me not to pass up the XXL’s and 7 3/4 long ovals when they were available in the stores.
Whether it’s a frugal baseball-trucker hat or one custom made at a hatter’s–and for that privilege prepare to pay upwards of $500–our hats can also be a form of branding. I knew the late Grits Gresham for a quarter century; and in the world of the outdoors, and light-beer commercials, his distinctive white hat, accented by those silver muttonchops, not to mention that nickname (christened “Claude,” he switched soon enough) made him instantly recognizable. And though there was far more to the man than the unique crease of his hat,Gresham certainly understood the advertising value of his hat.
(Gresham used to hunt predators camoed to the eyebrows, then topped, like the cherry on the sundae, with his white hat.)
Along with the functional tasks of keeping our heads warm and the rain out of our eyes and the sun off our necks, hats serve other, less obvious pursposes. A broad-brimmed felt hat serves as a cowboy crash helmet for limbs and branches when on horseback or to protect your face when pushing through tall brush–just duck your head and hold onto your hat as your steed steams forward. Even the omnipresent bill cap has utilitarian applications beyond being the lid that says that someone cared enough to give a gimme cap.
When glassing, a hunter can wrap his thumbs around the binocular (and it is a particular bête noire whenever I hear the word binoculars – it is a “binocular” the way it is a “bicycle,” no “s” needed for one of these pairs of wheels or lenses) and press his free fingers into the top of the bill, and by pulling the bill forward, lock the binocular into a steady hold.
Among the world of hunting hats, I can, if pressed, pick three favorites.
The first is a classic safari hat I purchased at the Rowland Ward shop in Johannesburg. Broad brimmed and vented for air cirulation, the hat’s crowning (literally) glory is a genuine lion-hide hatband.
It’s a hat that has been with me on various continents, and given reliable service, although it probably looks more suited for airline transit lounges than mopane forests. Which brings me to the Tilley.
The pride of Canada, Tilleys forever remind me of something Jane Hathaway wore on birding expeditons. Known as “Endurables,” Tilleys (www.Tilley.com) have been among my hunting hats for over a decade. I have an olive-drab one I have hunted Cape buffalo in (and what buffalo were doing in the hat I never knew), an old Rhodesian pence, found in the field, hanging on the tie string. Tilley now has a new camo version I look forward to dunking into a waterhole and planting soaking wet on my fevered brow in the middle of an equatorial day.
And finally the all-American Kromer (www.stormykromer.com). More than 100 years ago, former semi-pro ballplayer and locomotive driver George “Stormy” Kromer had his wife alter the outside seams on one of his old ball caps to keep it from blowing off while he was on the job.
The down-to-earth, practical style soon spread among farmers and hunters across Fargo country (where I first encountered it) and beyond.
Whatever one’s hat of choice, the only good hat (or the best one) is an old hat, showing the perspiration, grime, fatigue and memories of long, excellent use. And to such headdresses I can only say, if you will forgive me, hats off.
Tom McIntyre is a contributing editor to Sports Afield and Field & Stream magazine.