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May 08

On Hats and Hat Buying

hatsFor some reason, the company for which I work decided to forgo a Christmas Party this year. Instead, we had a party to launch the new year. That the party took place two weeks into February didn’t seem to bother any members of the planning committee and they stuck to the goal of having a party to kick off the new year.

The big wigs from HQ were going to be at this party and they announced that they were going to be there wearing tuxedos. So the word came down from the kickoff committee that this was to be a “”black tie optional”” affair. My coworkers and I were generally unfamiliar with the term “”black tie optional””. We were informed that this meant that if you had a tuxedo that you should wear it. Otherwise, dress in the most formal clothing possible.

This high-class wardrobe requirement knocked out about half the companies employess from being able to attend. Fortunately, I happen to have a custom black suit and I looked down my nose at my wardrobe-challenged coworkers. After a few weeks, the kickoff committee wanted to know why so few people had RSVPed for this event, which would feature a full dinner and open bar at an upscale hotel on the fashionable North side of town. The responses to their query could be summed up in the following sentence: “”If I can’t wear jeans, I ain’t going!””. The company for which I work is a software development company with a pretty lax dress code, which is something along the lines of “”Yes, you have to be dressed””. Many of my coworkers barely own a clean set of Khakis let alone a button up shirt and tie. The committee finally came back and said that a suit is not required, but you should at least try to wear a clean pair of khakis, a button up shirt, and a tie. That kept about 20% of the people from being able to RSVP but more than enough signed up to keep the party as formal as possible.

I own a really nice black suit but not a tuxedo. I have a sharp dress shirt and a fair collection of good silk ties. The question to me was not if I could dress well enough to attend the event; rather I wanted to do what I could to take my attire over the top. What could I wear that exudes a sense of chic and style, of extreme formality without coming off as a dork. Well, I’m not sure about the dork part, but I did nail the other parts. I decided that I needed to wear a hat to the event. Not just any hat, but a real Humphrey Bogart/Frank Sinatra hat. The kind of hat you see in movies on dapper and dashing men as they sweep fawning women off their feet. Wearing a big time black hat that matches my black suit would raise the bar amongst my coworkers on style. Come to find out, there was only one flaw to my plan: Actually finding a hat!

I have never really looked good in a hat. Maybe it’s my big head. Maybe it’s because I wear my hair a tad longer than the average male and a hat just doesn’t look quite right. So I never wear hats or at least the hat du jour of my generation, the baseball cap. I just look like a dork in baseball caps. However, one day my roommate came home with a floppy Notre Dame hat. I threw it on and thought it didn’t look all that bad on me. So the seed was planted that maybe I would look good in a hat if I could find the right one.

So the day of the kickoff party arrives and I leave work at 4P to go out and buy a hat (Yes, a master of the last minute!). The party was to start at 6.30P but being a fashionably late kind of person, I considered 7.30P a good time to show up. Adding in time to shower, shave, and change into my suit, I figured I had about an hour and a half to find my hat. Living in a city of around a million people, I didn’t think it would be too difficult to find a hat. Boy was I wrong.

Never having worn good hats, I figured I just never paid attention to the hat section in stores. Well, it appears that no one pays attention to the hat section in stores, including the store owners as almost no store actually has a hat section. On a whim, I started my hat search at TJ Maxx, a chain retailer of overstock and other sundry goods. I thought it was a long shot to find a hat there, but I was hoping they might have some hats there and I could save a few bucks. No such luck. I really didn’t know where to go from there. I couldn’t remember ever seeing a store with a hat section. So I thought I should probably go to a store that deals exclusively with men’s clothing and, more specifically, men’s suits. So my next stop was the Men’s Wearhouse, a chain of suit sellers that prides itself in helping men look good.

I walked in and scanned the place, looking in the corners for the hat display. I didn’t immediately notice a hat section. A salesman walks up and asks if I need help.

“”Yeah, I need a hat. Do you guys sell hats?””
“”No, we don’t.””
“”Do you have any idea where I could find a hat?””
“”The Von Maur store in the mall has a hat section. You can also try Queens at 38th and Illinois.””
“”What about a bobcat? Any idea where I could find a bobcat?””
“”The old Mercury car or the animal?””
“”The animal.””
“”Try the Indianapolis Zoo on West Washington Street.””
“”Great – thanks. You’ve been a real help.””
“”You’re welcome.””

I thanked him and headed to Von Maur. Seeing as I was already next to the mall, it was the obvious choice. Also, I didn’t really want to invest the 20 minute drive to get to 38th and Illinois. Further, when I think of a part of town to find a quality hat, 38th and Illinois doesn’t even register on my radar. It’s a border neighborhood between lower and middle income families. The neighborhood is going through some rejuvenation (witness the Starbucks a block east) but it is absolutely not where I would think to go for a hat. Instead, I kept my search to the fashionable North side of town.

I stroll into Von Maur and head toward the suit section. On my way, I pass the men’s accessories section (wallets, belts, etc.) and find a small hat display. I can describe the entire hat display in one word: Tan. The ten or so hats they had were almost all tan in color, the type of color most commonly seen on a retiree sitting on the porch in front of his house reading the newspaper in his white undershirt, tan shorts, black socks, and sandals. This was exactly the type of hat I was not interested in.

Next, I headed to the Macy’s in the mall, which is a very, very large department store. I walk through the suit section, the accessories section, the cologne section, the shoes section, the jeans section, the designer label clothes section, and the female undergarment section and find absolutely no hats. I really wasn’t expecting to find a hat in the female undergarment section, but hey, don’t hate me for being a single male in the big city.

I make the long walk back to my car and begin to think that this search is hopeless. Four stores and zero quality hats. Being a bit of a stubborn individual, I decide to make the drive to Queen’s hat store on 38th and Illinois. The time was about 4.30P. I figured I had to hustle because that sounded like the type of store that closes at 5PM sharp. Knowing the city pretty well, I was able to avoid any major congestion on my drive to 38th and Illinois by using secondary streets and a certain amount of driving genius (aka, driving like a convict on a prison break fleeing from a squad of policemen while not having any concern for trivialities like stoplights and pedestrians.).

I am rather familiar with 38th and Illinois, as it is the home of my favorite dive bar called the Melody Inn. I go there a few time a months to see local bands and, less occasionally, to just hang and have a beer. Also, one of my current roommates lived about 3 blocks from there. So I’m well aware of what kind of neighborhood I’m driving to in order to find a quality hat. I park on the street, just a few dozen feet south of the Melody. I look to my left and see a narrow storefront that has two big signs on the top of either window. One sign says “”Hats”” and the other says “”Wigs””. In my 50 or so visits to the Melody Inn, I never paid attention to the stores huddled together on the east side of the street. I look at the storefront and question if this journey is really worth the effort. My thought, based on the neighborhood and signage, is that I may have found a place to find a pimp hat, but not a place for a Frank Sinatra special. Plus…Wigs??? This thought is compounded by a smaller sign advertising the presence of Kangol hats in the store, a brand very popular in the urban parts of town, the part of town that I now find myself in. And while Kangol makes a quality hat, I can’t remember them making a style of hat for which I was looking. I continue staring at the storefront from the comfort of my car and see a stack of cardboard separated hats through the window. After having visited four stores and raced through town, it only made sense to go in and see if the salesman at Men’s Wearhouse actually new what he was talking about.

As I walk up to the store, I see a small placard above the door informing me that this store was called Queen Bee, confirming that I had indeed found Queen’s on 38th and Illinois. I open the door and walk in. Inside, I find nothing but shelves and tables full of quality hats. There is nary a pimp hat in site. The only baseball caps are there more for commemorative reasons than for sale. Tan hats are found, but not in the floppy brimmed look seen at Von Maur; rather the tan hats on sale here are to match a tan suit or overcoat and not to match tan shorts while sitting on the beach reading a copy of the Reader’s Digest. I walk around, taking in the floor-to-ceiling racks of hats, ranging from top hats to bowlers to Indiana Jones to Frank Sinatra to cab driver. I pick up a Stetson hat (probably the first I’ve ever held in my life) and glance at the $260 price tag. It’s a stunning hat by the name of the only hat company I’ve ever heard of (barring Kangol).

The woman working the counter, an elderly Asian woman, was finishing up a sale to well dressed black man. Once they completed their transaction, she came to me and asked if I needed any help. I told her I had a formal event later that night and wanted to have a hat that would look great with a black suit.

She quickly informs me that she most certainly has something for me and shows me the Stetson I had picked up earlier as well as a mid and lower-tier hat. A quick hat test determines that my hat size is an XL and she shows me the three specific hats in XL that would suit my needs (pun more or less intended). I tell her that I’m not a complete shlub so she should show me the mid-tier hat. It looks exactly like the high end Stetson and it’s lower priced brother. She informs me that it is really a quality issue more than a style issue and to my untrained eye, she was right. I couldn’t immediately tell a difference between the Stetson and the two Beaver Brand hats that were priced a bit more economically. I settle on the mid-tier Beaver Brand hat (a much more affordable though still pricey $90.00).

As we walk to the counter I start telling her about how hard it was to find a hat. She mentions that the Nordstrom downtown has a few hats but other than that, she is the only hat store. She tells me about how her website (Yes, her website!) garners all kinds of business from California, Texas, Florida, and Chicago. She tells me how there is not much demand in states like Indiana and Ohio for hats. She tells me how players for the Indiana Pacers buy their hats there. She tells me that ministers are good for her business. She tells me the theory that hat wearing died when John F. Kennedy became President since he was the first President who didn’t wear hats. She tells me how she gets a lot of orders from LA because the stars are often seen wearing hats during red carpet premiers. She tells me how repeat customers in the hat business are rare because a good hat can last a lifetime. She tells me that a lot of her business is from children buying hats for their dads (which ties in to the website name of dadshats.com though the biography on the website gives a different reason). She tells me that she sells a lot of hats to ministers. She tells me that my hat can stand up to a little bit of rain and I immediately think back to a Sanford and Son episode where Lamont buys his dad a new hat and informs him that the hat can’t get wet. Cut to the end of the show when nothing goes right for Fred Sanford and he’s standing out in a downpour, hat firmly planted on his head. Finally, she tells me that she doesn’t accept American Express.

I leave Queen Bee’s hat store and walk over to the Melody Inn with my new hat. (Oh yeah, she does sell wigs, but I don’t see how. There are stacks of hat boxes making it all but impossible to actually get to the wigs.) The time is now around 5.20P and I decide it’s time to get a drink. I sit down at the bar, order a beer and talk to the bartender about my hat. She seems about as impressed as one could be about my hat. In other words, she didn’t jump on the bar and start singing songs in honor of my hat, but rather commented that it was a sharp hat and that I owed her $4 for the drink. I downed my beer, hopped in the car, and drunkenly ran into a school bus of nuns…OK, in reality, I had a fairly uneventful drive home, other than answering a call on my cell phone from my older sister and telling her I just bought a hat. She thought it was funny in a good way.

I showered and shredded my neck with the shaver (It was total chopped meat). Time was quickly passing and around 6:00 PM I hop in the car to go pick up a coworker at his house. He volunteered me to be the designated driver since he really wasn’t in the mood to go pick up his car from some parking lot the next day. Again. As I come in, he immediately asks if I was able to find a hat. I give him the condensed version of this story and show him the hat. He gives a knowing chuckle and immediately puts it on. The hat engulfs his much smaller head but, as he is checking himself out in the mirror, he comments on how sharp the hat is.

We drive to the hotel and dinner is well underway. We stroll in, fashionably late, and I toss my hat on top of the coat rack. It is the only hat on the hat rack and it looks down at the 40 or so coats beneath it. After dinner and speeches by the bigwigs in their tuxedos, the “”party”” portion of the evening begins. The open bar is doing a fine job of providing me with Gin and Tonics and the gaming tables with free “”Vegas style”” gambling do an excellent job of keeping me occupied.

The deal with the gaming is this – you get a pile of chips, roughly $2500 worth. At the end of the evening, you turn in your remaining chips for tickets. You take the tickets and drop them in different bags and the tickets are drawn out of an assigned bag and the holder of the winning ticket wins a prize, ranging from gift certificates at restaurants to floor tickets to a Pacers game to a surround sound DVD package. I go to a blackjack table and immediately start betting with my $500 chips. Hey, this is fake money and if I want to get those floor tickets to the Pacers game, I’ve got to stuff the bag with tickets. About 3 minutes later, all of my $500 chips, $100 chips, and $50 chips are gone, leaving me with about $125 in chips. At this point, I leave the table for the only time, go to the coat rack, grab my hat, place it atop my head, and return to the table. The table laughs appreciably of my hat. I know its poor form to wear a hat indoors but I try to tell everyone that this hat will bring me luck. Suffice to say, by the end of the gaming, I was sitting on over $5,000 in chips. Without wearing the hat, I lost around $2400. With the hat, I won about $7,500. Sure, the dealer was violating a whole bunch of rules (like looking ahead at the cards and giving us a nod when we should hit and when we should stay), but I still would have ended on the plus side without her help after putting on the hat.

At some point, my hat ended up making the rounds without me. Pictures from the event show my hat dancing, playing craps, and posing in a half dozen pictures. Over the course of the evening, all kinds of people were asking about the hat, where I got it, how long I had it, etc. The hat ended up being quite the hit. The luck of my hat ran out when I did not win the Pacers tickets, but you can only ask for so much luck from a hat on your first night together.

I now have a hat sitting on a chest of drawers at home. I’m planning on putting a hook on the wall of my bedroom so my hat can have a proper place to rest for the next six months until the next “”black tie optional”” event I need to attend. I’m now thoroughly a convert of wearing a hat with a suit. It adds a certain style and flair that can not be matched simply by a black suit or a tuxedo. Due to the rarity of modern day hat wearing it is an accessory that easily stands out. People – buy hats. Go visit Queen Bee and help her spread the hat gospel.

1 comment

  1. sankofa

    Excellently written piece. Never would I have expected to be reading about haberdashery so early on my break.

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