Head Of The Class: May 15, Straw Hat Day On Campus And Beyond


The era of men wearing proper hats has certainly gone the way of the dodo. Blame it on JFK. Still, there are older men and younger dandies who are somehow keeping the hat business afloat. For them, May 15th is a special day, as it’s the traditional date of putting away your wool hats and bringing out your straw hats, marking the sartorial turn from the cold winter to the warm summer.

Vintage photos reveal that this tradition was present during the Ivy heyday. Young men are out in lighter fabrics, donning their straw hats, and generally looking pleased to be out of the harsh Eastern winter.

“Hat bands were made of a variety of different fabrics with bright, summery colorways,” recalls Richard Press, former president of J. Press. “Madras, batik and rep bands were common and were a part of the Ivy summertime uniform.”

The boater hat in particular made its way into the wardrobes of various Ivy men. It has always been the oddball piece of headwear. It was a specialty hat, often worn by members of the cheerleading squads and university bands.  “Boaters were also worn specifically for sporting events, such as the Kentucky Derby,” says Press, “and rowing events on the Charles and Schuylkill rivers.”

While it’s appearance is quirky, it’s association with sports and school pride made it suitable at such events for the students. The first three photos are from the 1953 Skimmer Day at Penn, while the botoom photo is of the Princeton band in 1961. — MATTHEW KARL GALE




33 Comments on "Head Of The Class: May 15, Straw Hat Day On Campus And Beyond"

  1. That picture of the Princeton Band would look a lot worse in color. :-)

  2. Boaters at sporting events such as Derby Day, Yale’s premier social event of the spring focused on boating races in nearby Derby, Ct. banished in early 50’s after rowdy behavior & ungentlemanly rioting.

  3. My high school men’s pep club would wear boaters to home games, or top hats or coonskin hats or cowboy hats. Always interesting to see which, the only thing constant were the kazoos. I miss the 60s. 😉

  4. A.E.W. Mason | May 15, 2014 at 5:03 pm |

    For some reason I recall seeing a man, probably about 80 years of age, back in the summer of 1979 crossing 57th Street near Wolf’s Deli (is it still there?). He was wearing a boater accompanied by a dark gray sack suit, starched white shirt, and a beautifully knotted tie. He looked great, his whole bearing suggesting a life that had been well lived. Because of his age and the fact that it was 35 years ago, he looked completely natural to me. There was not the slightest sense that he was wearing a costume. Rather, it seemed he had simply put on what was natural for him and his generation without giving it a thought. I’m not sure even elderly gentlemen can get away with wearing a boater today without it looking contrived.

  5. Vern Trotter | May 15, 2014 at 6:55 pm |

    I wore a boater during the summers of 1959 and 1960 when I wore a suit & tie on a sunny day. I bought it at Brooks. It was a common sight on Madison Avenue and I always saw others and was never given a second glance. It died out as fashion in the early 60s and remained in the top of my closet until about 1990 and I don’t remember what happened to it.

    I had an uncle, a WW1 vet and gentleman farmer, who wore one daily during the summer. He started wearing it when he got home from France after being gassed in combat against the Boche. To this
    day I always think of him when I see one.

  6. You really think that if Richard Nixon was elect President in 1960,instead of JFK,hats would not be gone out of fashion?

  7. Christian | May 15, 2014 at 7:29 pm |

    The hat was already moribund. On inauguration day, Kennedy just delivered the coup de grace.

    What we need to do here is a piece on the hat on campus. I’m guessing it didn’t survive much past 1930.

  8. Sorry Christian, but J. Press Hat sales, particularly the Khaki Nutmeg sported by Gregory Peck in Gentlemen’s Agreement, were gregarious in Cambridge and New Haven even through the Kennedy Years.

  9. He did wear a hat at all times that day [i]other[/i] than during the inauguration speech itself.

  10. Dan is correct; JFK did wear a silk top hat with his morning suit. The only controversy re: headwear was the fact the new president stood and tipped his hat to his father out of respect and gratitude. I don’t know if Nixon wore a top hat, but Ike wore one.

  11. peruna kid | May 16, 2014 at 2:56 am |

    The SMU band wears boaters every so often:


  12. UC Berkeley has a straw hat band. I’ve seen them march in a parade.


  13. Very curious usage of the word “gregarious” in the post above.

  14. Christian | May 16, 2014 at 1:27 pm |

    The student in the drawing halfway down this page wearing a hat is from the ’20s:


    Among everything in the Historic Images category, I think there are very few guys on campus wearing hats:


  15. Richard Conlan | May 16, 2014 at 4:28 pm |

    “What we need to do here is a piece on the hat on campus. I’m guessing it didn’t survive much past 1930.”

    If I recall, Fitzgerald mentions this in his first novel, This Side of Paradise, published 1922 and begun during the war.

    “Bare headed and white flanneled youths” is his character’s first impression of Princeton upperclassmen. And we know Princeton was the trendsetter for all the Ivies in those years.

  16. Christian | May 16, 2014 at 4:30 pm |

    Great memory and great starting point.

  17. Roy R. Platt | May 16, 2014 at 11:54 pm |

    The principal problem with wearing a hat now is what to do with the hat when indoors. Hat check girls, hat racks, the place under restaurant chairs where hats (and handbags) went, and the clip on the back of lunch counter seats are all gone. The Pullman Porter on the 20th Century Limited or the Parlor Car Attendant on the Merchant’s Limited no longer gives you a paper bag to keep your hat clean enroute and then brushes off your hat at the end of your journey.

    This has led to the horror of seeing people wearing hats indoors. Some people don’t take their hats off when talking with ladies and when they do take their hats off, they sometimes use the wrong (their right) hand.

    In current films, the leads often don’t wear hats even when it is historically correct to be wearing hats, and look dreadfully silly without hats.

  18. Anything to restore the Ivy League to a place where ‘hail-fellow-well-met’ squashes the overbearing dorkiness that prevails these days. The boater hints of old school GTH. In the South, there’s the filthy, decrepit bar stripe “lid.”

    I don’t doubt older gents who grew up during the 40s and 50s were still sporting proper hats in the early 60s, but I’m dubious about affiliations with the Heyday. I’m with you in this one, CC.

    Good luck trying to find more than a few hats:


    I actually think the baseball cap works well with the overall vibe of Ivy, which is essentially a certain take on conservative casual.

  19. Baseball cap are ugly.
    Better a soft cap (the inspector Closeau model,that i think is derived by golf).
    Anyway,the decline of the hat in Italy was more premature and slow that in USA.
    Hats become out of fashion after WW-II.
    The paradox is that Italy exported a lot of fine hats in the world,but barely none man under 40 of age carried a hat after 1945.

  20. Baseball caps are not ugly. But some of the people who wear them are.

  21. Indeed.

  22. I asked my octogenarian father about his fedora-wearing, and he told me that throughout college and for a while thereafter, when he worked at a men’s clothing store, he had to wear one. However, he stopped wearing them after he got a full-time job in his field; this was in the 1950s.


  23. Something about the Brown Trilby, though.

  24. AEW Mason | May 18, 2014 at 6:16 pm |

    There was a substantial group of holdouts well into the 60’s who continued to wear hats–and without it you simply weren’t dressed. Perhaps Wall Street lawyers and in the large corporate law departments for the most part.

    Personally, I cannot bear the “hail fellow well met” and fake “heavy good fellowship” nonsense that still exists in some quarters. My personal experience is that it finds itself in partners in the large firms and corporations today who’ve never read a novel, think poetry is for school girls, go to the symphony so they can pretend to culture but fall asleep while there (because they have the attention span of backward clams) but brag about the seats they’re able to afford. Think Dewey Leboeuf e-mails quoted in the recent criminal indictment of its executive committee members: “Dude, we kicked ass. Time to get paid.” Maybe another world war would assist today’s male in growing up. Not that I feel strongly about it….

  25. AEW Mason | May 18, 2014 at 6:24 pm |

    I’m sure baseball caps were all the rage at Dewey outings. Oh, wait, probably at the office as well. And, of course, they “sported”– I think that’s the right term–the Dewey logo.

  26. I don’t doubt there’s some truth in your observation. I understand.

    But let me speak as someone who has seen more than a few modern-day Ivy League students in action: the introverted, nose-wiping, goofy-laughing, high top sneaker wearing “quant” is equally unconcerned with poetry, the novel, and the theater. If given the chance, they’ll ruin the economy again. And their professors in the theoretical mathematics department don’t seem to give a damn.

    When I speak of hail fellow well met, I speak not of the breed of “man” you have in mind. I think we’re talking past one another. More than a few (true) Southern Gentlemen come to mind, as well as older gents who haven’t relinquished the values of a bygone era. Yes, when men wore hats.

    And, now that I think about it, some baseball caps are ugly. Some.

  27. J. I. Rodale | May 18, 2014 at 10:34 pm |

    For the uninitiated who are not quite sure about how to wear their baseball caps:




  28. J.I. Rodale | May 18, 2014 at 10:37 pm |

    Just checked, and my first link didn’t work.

    Here’s another link to the correct way to wear a baseball cap:


  29. A.E.W. Mason | May 19, 2014 at 3:07 pm |


    I agree with you. Your reference was, I think, to the classical ideal and example of the well-met fellow. That is indeed very different than my example.

  30. Frederic Smith | May 20, 2014 at 3:55 pm |

    Hats are risky. Put one in the overhead bin of an airplane and see what it looks like at the end of the flight. Try to find a hat stand in a restaurant or bar. Try getting into one of today’s automobiles with a hat on your head. No, sorry, the modern world won’t accommodate hats.

  31. And yet if you persevere, you can do it. I’ve been a dedicated daily hat-wearer for more than two decades, and have learned how to make the modern world accommodate my idiosyncrasy.

  32. When I was a boy growing up in the 50’s-60’s, a most men wore hats and caps. Although my Dad never wore a fedora or any other kind of headgear, I wore hats all my life. Everyone used to wear the Kangol type Ivy caps when I was young. It dawned on me a couple years ago, no one I know wears them anymore.

    Winter, I wear a Hanna walker or a wool snap brim. Summer, a light colored Kangol. Since I have an ample head of gray hair, I should probably go hatless, but I prefer the cap or hat.

    My uncle’s straw boater sits on my hall tree, has for decades. Wearing one now would probably cause problems with the idiots you meet in our society.

    I wonder how many were sold by Brooks during the Gatsby release last year. Not many, I guess.

    Hats are like bow ties, most stores carry them in the spring, but I never see anyone wearing them.


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