Looking at footage of the pedestrians in a European city at the beginning of the 20th Century, it struck me, as it generally strikes most modern people, how many of the men back then wore hats as a normal part of their everyday attire. Women too, of course, but women often still wear hats. The hat hasn’t really gone away as far as the female head is concerned. But among European men, it is no longer common. While studying this footage I was told by another observer that in those days, “Men would never go out without a hat,” and everything I saw on the screen seemed to confirm this judgment.
But then it occurred to me that such an ubiquitous expectation contained seeds of doom for certain unlucky souls. A man might have possessed only one hat. It is vital that he goes out. He looks for the hat but can’t find it. Maybe it has decayed overnight into dust. Perhaps the cat ran off with it. Possibly it is simply lost without explanation in the manner of so many other domestic objects. The hat has gone. There is no spare hat and so the man is stuck indoors. Men never go out without a hat, and he has none, therefore it is impossible for him to go out.
But he must go out, it is important, maybe his daughter needs rescuing from a cad, or he has to invent the electric brougham. What are the options? Well, to improvise a hat is the obvious solution. A tea cosy makes an excellent item of headgear. I know this from experience. So do many others. I believe that it was Stewart Lee who once said something along the lines of, “Put a man in a room with nothing but a tea cosy and if within the hour he isn’t wearing it on his head, then he is the very definition of a boring person.” I concur wholeheartedly and wholeheadedly with this sentiment. The tea cosy hat is superior to a topper.
The main reason I first tried wearing one was to spoof Aleister Crowley, that half fraudulent, half brilliant, half ludicrous magus, and if those fractions don’t add up it’s entirely apt, because the parts of his life didn’t add up either. He liked to wear strange, soft, comfy looking things on his head. They weren’t really hats as such, more like an unholy conjunction of turban, cushion and mitre. Almost exactly like tea cosies in fact! I wore the tea cosy and spoofed him and it was a satisfying experience. Had I been born one hundred years earlier than I was, I could have gone out wearing it and made my way to the nearest hat shop in order to purchase a proper hat. The tea cosy might look absurd but at least it can pass as a type of hat, and that would be enough to permit me to walk the streets without censure.
Or rather, there would be censure in the form of ridicule, for a man in a tea cosy is a natural target of fun, but no censure in the form of social outrage. And the moment I reached the hat shop I would be safe, safe to buy a proper hat and emerge like a true man, a man able to hold his head up high in public, not just in order to keep the new hat balanced on top, but because I would have nothing to fear. The tea cosy could be stuffed into one of the deep pockets of my baggy trousers. No one need know it was there. No shame and no worries. I would be a man of my time again.
Trouser pockets, however, are a subject that brings me to another consideration of greater relevance to our own society. If you own a hat in the modern age and your cat runs off with it, what difficulties do you face? Very few compared with your ancestor of a century ago. But imagine you only possess one pair of trousers, and these trousers suddenly disappear overnight! Now you are in trouble irrespective of the year of your birth. Even if the trousers don’t completely disappear, even if they only tear and flap open at the crotch, the result is the same. You will be unable to visit the trouser shop for another pair of trousers. To visit that shop requires you to walk there and to walk to a shop, even a trouser shop, necessitates that you are already wearing trousers. A man without cheese might plausibly go to a cheesemonger’s but no man goes to the vendor of trousers in the nude. The scenarios belong to separate categories. A man with only one pair of trousers who loses the use of those trousers is stuck indoors for the remainder of his days. He is a prisoner.
But maybe it is kinder to refer to him as a hermit? There are no political, criminal or moral millstones around the neck of a hermit, as there are around a criminal’s neck. A hermit retires from society. We walk down the street and we see curtains twitch in the windows of the houses we pass. Shadowy faces are behind them. There are tens of thousands of trouser hermits in the cities of our civilisation, men trapped into a life of enclosure by massive trouser trauma. They could be rescued easily enough. A pair of new trousers fed through the letter flap of each unhappy abode. But we are ignorant of them and their desperate need. We pass on, oblivious, striding in our own good trousers. Also, we are wise, we are prudent, we are prepared. At home we have many trousers, we aren’t as feckless as these lost trapped souls in the rooms of those houses who are destined to dine frugally on what little food remains in their cupboards before going on to devour cobwebs and furniture.
The circle can be completed, even though it’s not really a circle but just a lump of an unspecified kind. The trouser hermit has no wife or family to come to the rescue and his work colleagues simply don’t care enough about him to seek him out. Yes, he can attempt to improvise trousers by knotting together towels and dishcloths, but he is too clumsy to do so. He cannot call for help on the telephone because the telephone was one of the first things he ate when the tinned food ran out. He is too shy to bang on the window at passers-by for help. He is the perfect anchorite, stuck to the seabed of his own reticence even though the vessel of normal life has broken free and gone sailing off without him. What can he do?
He will lurk because lurking is one of his natural skills. And at the base of some little-used wardrobe in the spare room he kept for guests who never came, he will find items of old clothing he had forgotten about. Our final view of him, in our hungry mind’s eye, shows him squatting in this gloomy space munching on hats, the hats of a former time, the hats that are no longer crucial for a fulfilled life, the hats of sundry sizes and miscellaneous materials that betrayed the scalps of our elders with historic itchings.
Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.
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