I remember when I got my first hat, my father and I went to Kova Hats in Brooklyn a store a buddy of his from yeshiva owned. We walked in and after looking at one hat walked right out, turned on our heels before little more then “vus machs du” could be uttered. My father cursed under his breath about the price of an over sized yarmulke that gave a little protection from the rain, but costs 20 times as much as a decent umbrella. I did bring up that most umbrellas are junked in the garbage after the storm turns it inside out and that this was unlikely to happen to a well constructed fedora, but he just snarled and said “then you have to buy the rain protectors for it.” I had no idea why I was actually getting a hat, I was almost 14 years old and about to embark on the adventure of my life. I had gotten accepted to a yeshiva, a real yeshiva, in Rochester New York and for some reason- I sure as hell had no clue, everyone wore hats there.
We ended up at sears in Brooklyn where for $28 dollars I received my first black hat, a small brimmed hat that looked like something a preacher would wear. It had a red feather in it too, which I thought was cool. I would own one other hat in my career of hats, a green hat that made me look like a gangster and that I found on clearance in Marhsalls for 15 bucks. I have no idea where these hats are- but I remember hat shopping well.
I remember in the beginning of high school I had no idea why we were wearing hats or how to correctly wear my hat. I can just see that first day of shachris with my hat falling off my head while all the other experienced hat wearers just sat there shaking back and forth with those larger hats perched precariously on their heads waiting to fall but never actually falling. There were a few grey hats and even one straw hat in the mix, but mostly plain black. I figured the black hat was like accessorizing, you needed it match a majority of your outfits and since most guys wore black pants and jackets, they wanted the hat to go with their outfits. Later on in life I realized that the Orthodox Jewish hat market was run by folks like Henry Ford who wanted to limit the color of their product to black and only when the less religious hat wearers fought for a change did they produce grey and straw hats, though those are still hard to find- since hat dealers do not make as much profit on those and tend to put them in hard to reach places near the shoe shine and tefilin finisher.
The wide brim was more popular on shabbos, when the pimping guys would walk in wearing the late 1990’s yeshiva guy outfit, there was only one outfit that people wore. 3 or 4 button suites were all the rage, wide pinstripes, with one of those white Tommy Hilfiger shirts with the blue inside the collars and an obscenely bright tie. I think the bright tie was so that they could differentiate and profile each other. Because without that bright tie yeshiva guys kind of took on the Asian Effect- you simply could not tell them apart. Whenever I said this, since I was a novice with regards to yeshiva guys and hats, the Rabbis would give me speech on how diverse the yeshiva community was. They, similar to Asians who claim there are differences would point out that some guys wore Borcilino, Roche or Stetson hats with wide or more narrow brims depending on how much rain water they were trying to catch. Some guys wore their hat brims up while others wore them down, I was told the ones who wore them down- were always in a rush to learn, while the ones who wore them up induced drag so they could be more lazy and that I should take note for future shidduch purposes. I of course had no idea what a shidduch even was, though I still told my Rabbi that they all looked the same- like trying to differentiate between Taiwanese and Korean- nearly impossible unless you immerse yourself in the culture. It would be years until I could tell the difference between yeshiva guys and even then I had to use more then my hat profiling. Belt buckle thickness has a ton to do with whether the guy is a hocker, hocker’s love those huge belt buckles and never buy reversible belts, while the hardcore learners have worn and frayed belts. The hardcore learner types tend to change and wash their clothing less often and therefore have many cholent and chrain stains to prove their long hours slaving over a piece of gemara while scarfing down left over cholent that got all over their shirt while they shook to the rhythm of the blatt they happened to be on.
Later in life, after a few years in yeshiva, after I figured out all the hat tricks- even those ones to flip the hat with one hand and put it on your head. Or that one where you stand next to a mirror and make believe you can levitate your hat, as you bend spoons with your eyes. After all of these great experiences I learned that there was more to the hat then meets the eye, kind of like my favorite show as a kid. It was when I left high school and entered the real world, and it can be so cold I learned, that the hat meant more then protection from the rain and snow of upstate New York.
This period after high school, when I threw away my hat, actually I left it in the coat room and never saw it again, this period I learned something very important about hat wearers. There are a million different ways to wear and reason to wear a hat.
The number one reason I discovered that people wore hats, was not the double head covering of which I was force fed during high school, nor was it the respect thing. Nope, it was chronic baldness amongst young men. I first noticed that many people who were not even religious wore hats, and then folks who didn’t believe in the hats ability to save your ass from hairy situations like being stuck on the side of Route 17 in the Catskills, or being pulled over by a cop and claiming you’re a Rabbi- wore the hat as well. These folks would not even be classified as frum yet they donned those fuzzy disks in the name of hair club for men. In fact not only did it improve their shidduch chances in the looks department they started getting more suggestions before they could explain why they were wearing the hats, and hence you have this whole class of black hatters that have absolutely no black hat philosophies.
Then came the folks who were sort of black hat, since there is no demographic for hat wearing folks who wear cowboy hats, grey hats, sombreros and straw hats. I never understood why sites like frumster had no classification for the non-black hat, hat crowd. Like there was some sort of ongoing conspiracy to make sure only black hats dominated the market.
Then you have the black hat crowd that switches to baseball caps in the summer. These are the folks who go on day trip sot places like Lake George and the Baseball Hall of Fame- out of the Jewish Catskills they venture and then they break out of their penguin jumpsuits and don the striped polo shirt usually containing blue and orange, tucked into black pants with white sneakers and baseball hat. Since these are such progressive people their wives are also wearing the baseball hat as well as the children. This is the outfit for black hat folks who fear Antisemitism in the far reaches of upstate New York where anything could happen in the uninhabited terrain. Of course any one can tell these folks are Jewish purely from the caravan of strollers and children that usually follows and from the trail of garbage that gets dumped out of the strollers. The yakking in Yiddish on the cell phone doesn’t help either, nor does the random Jewish Geography with other escaped Penguins help their case. Anyone passing by a train of kids dressed alike in sailor outfits pouring out of a huge van attracts attention, if they aren’t black they are Jewish or Mormon- or maybe one of those on the fringe Amish families. I always want to walk up to the polo shirt and baseball cap crowd and say “dude your not fooling anybody.”