Hats make the man: a writer and historian takes a look at headgear and what it means to Latino culture.

Author:Coulombe, Charles A.

"Recently, among young Americans of all ethnicities, there has been an upswing in demand for hats--and this is particularly true amongst Latinos."

Hats are a huge part of Latino culture.

It is not just a matter of a newly returned son bringing his Mexican father a "Tejana" as a sign of respect. Although distinctions have somewhat blurred in recent years, a trained eye can distinguish by the size of the crown and the width of the brim whether a sombrero's wear is from Zacatecas or Jalisco. In Mariachi and other musical forms, musicians jealously hold onto the headwear heritage of times past. Needless to say, working vaqueros on both sides of the border do so as well.

But the transition to urban life in the United States has not lent itself to the preservation of traditional hats--or traditional clothing of any kind. The economic difficulties of many Latino immigrants arriving in a new urban environment made fashion a low priority.

Add to that the general collapse of standards of dress in mainstream America since the mid-1960s (a glance at a Madmen episode will show what I mean), and you have a situation where Latinos--and Latino men in particular--are not generally renowned for their fashion sense.

Latinas are another matter. They have always looked better in serious hats than men.

Felt hats give women an air of attractive mystery (think Agatha Christie in her Cloche hat, eyebrow level, with her striking blue eyes peering from below the brim). Worn appropriately, serious hats confer on Latinas an unsurpassed air of authority and majesty like Lucero, donning a high-crowned Rancher in the aptly titled telenovela, Soy tn duena (I own you); already in her forties when she sported the Rancher, the soap opera star never looked more stunning.

This was not always the case with Latinos. In the 1940s, zoot suits became the rage among young Chicanos (thanks to actor Tin-Tan), African-Americans (broad-brimmed hat tip to musician Cab Calloway), Filipinos and Italians.

It was and is easy to laugh at their hats and coats, complain about the amount of material used to make them (the reason used for the ban on such wear), or condemn them as subversive--a byproduct of the so-called "Zoot Suit Riots" in 1943 Los Angeles. But, introduced by jazz musicians as they were, Zoot suits represented a longing for style and elegance on the part of those on the margins of American society--a society that in those days prided itself on those very qualities, and above all...

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