Saturday, April 28, 2012

If the Hat Fits; Even if it Doesn't...

In an effort to save time on the river, here are answers the five most frequently asked questions on my tours.

1. No, that’s not a dead animal on my head, it’s my hat.
2. No, Patsy has not threatened to leave me if I continue to wear my hat—yet.
3. No, the County has not condemned my hat and ordered me to move out from under it.
4. No, I don’t have to feed my hat.
5. Great Blue heron

For normal people, the old saying, “a hat says a lot about the person wearing it,” is nothing more than a quaint witticism. For me, it’s a genuine concern. I have a feeling my hat is only a lightning bolt away from having a pulse, and when that happens, there’s no telling what it will start yapping about. We've been through a lot together, so I can only hope we’ve developed a strong enough bond to warrant its loyalty. After all, I stuff my head into its gaping mouth every day.

From a historical perspective, the notion of my hat being the remains of an animal—a very ugly animal—is not so far fetched. For as long as humans have lived in the Sunshine State, they’ve been draping the remains of dead animals on their heads. In many cases, these "hats" (for lack of a better term) have been functional accessories worn to protect the wearer's head and face from the elements. In other cases, they were wholly decorative.

The earliest images we have of native Floridians are found in a collection of drawings by Jacques Le Moyne, a French artist in the Court of King Charles IX. As a member of the short-lived and ill-fated French settlement at Ft. Caroline on the St. Johns River, Le Moyne was essentially an entrenched journalist at some of the first encounters between Europeans and Florida’s native people. His images offer incredible insights into the original Floridians, as well as their hats.

In looking though Lemoyne’s images, it's clear that the Timucuans gave a lot of thought to what was happening on their head. Those without hats or caps had their hair pulled up into tight topknots. Some images show warriors with a few arrows stuck through their topknots--presumably for quick access. Other headwear was less functional. In images depicting Timucuan ceremonies, we see that big ceremonies meant big hats (some things never change. I’m looking at you, English Royals). One shows Chief Saturiwa addressing a group of his warriors whose heads are adorned with a menagerie of animals. If you were to cover the warrior’s faces, you’d be left with a scene straight out of Dr. Doolittle. You’d see an expressive chief sloshing a cup of cassine tea in one wildly-gesturing hand as he addresses an audience comprised of a spotted cat (bobcat maybe?), a large raptor (bald eagle?), a small dog (fox?) and a variety of birds. Inflated fish bladders protrude from the pierced ear lobes of nearly every warrior in attendance. In another Le Moyne picture, we see a foreshadowing of fashion that would be popular among young Florida boys nearly five centuries later, the “coon-skin cap.”

With their love of head-wear, it seems likely the Indians were curious about the hats (and helmets) worn by Lemoyne and the rest of those first European arrivals. The Spanish conquistadores wore helmets called morions, with a crescent brim that curved up to points at the front and back. The design had evolved from centuries of warfare in the Old World. And while they were fine in a sword fight, morions quickly became obsolete in Florida.

For the first few centuries of colonization, the prevailing styles were as diverse as the people who lived here. But, with our warm, sunny weather, one common feature was a big brim. For the missionaries and ranch hands of the mission period and 19th century crackers alike, wide-brimmed hats of one sort or another remained the lids of choice. But there were others. In St. Augustine, Cedar Key and Pensacola, the main outposts of culture in Florida for much of the early period, less functional hats came and went over the years. This diversity was driven more by fashion trends than necessity. At different times you might have seen tri-cornered hats, beaver-skin top hats (think Abe Lincoln) and a variety of military caps.

My favorite hat of all time was not worn by a Floridian, but I can't resist giving it honorable mention. In the mid-1800’s, Henry David Thoreau wore a hat that … well, I’ll let him tell it. “About a half a dozen years ago I found myself again attending to plants with more method, looking out the name of each one and remembering it. I began to bring them home in my hat, a straw one with a scaffold lining to it, which I called my botany-box. I never used any other, and when some whom I visited were evidently surprised at its dilapidated look, as I deposited it on their front entry table, I assured them it was not so much my hat as my botany-box.” Yes, his hat had shelves inside.

These days, hats have become primarily an accessory of outdoors persons. But until the mid-1900’s, hats were worn by men of all persuasions and occupations. Urban mythology offers a couple of theories for the demise of hat-wearing in men. One states that JFK brought an end to the fashion when he attended his inauguration without a lid. Another theory credits (or blames) the shrinking interior compartments of shrinking cars. But neither of these is given much credit.

For now, the reason why most men stopped wearing their hats remains as much a mystery as why I continue to wear mine.