It’s one of the favorite subjects for historians and fashionistas alike: the disappearance of men’s headgear during the early 1960s. In fact, hats never went away, but they did go out of fashion, and the generation gap that followed created a cultural marker: a societal shift based on what men wore on their heads.
JFK: It’s known that that Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, sold hats for a while. It’s widely assumed that the 35th president, John F. Kennedy, destroyed the men’s hat-selling industry. Kennedy actually wore the traditional silk-fabric top hat during his inauguration, but, like his predecessors, left it at his seat during his speech. In addition, almost every image of Kennedy that appeared in newspapers, magazines, and on television thereafter showed him sans hat. Popular male entertainers of the day followed suit. Hat-wearing fashion might have been slowly declining by 1960, but JFK and the Camelot era pushed it over the brink.
Nikita Khruschev: Kennedy’s opposite number in the Soviet Union, Premier Nikita Khruschev, contributed to the trend. Ironically, the eternal bad guy in the Cold War wore a white hat during his televised face-off with then vice-president Richard Nixon during the “kitchen debate” in 1959. Khruschev lauded the merits of communism over capitalism, while Nixon promoted the symbolism of American prosperity. All three American television networks broadcast the exchange. Khruschev appeared clownish in his demeanor, but there was no joking when he faced-off against Kennedy in the political brinksmanship that followed during the early 1960s.
Byrlcreem: The British hair-care gel became ubiquitous in the USA due to a catchy jingle broadcast on television and radio. By 1960, men made sure nothing would mar the product’s impact on the well-groomed image. If you had hair, you wanted Brylcreem on it, and nothing covering it. The popular TV ads touted the perceived impact on the opposite sex, and even made it appear the imported cream could create an eye-catching style all by itself.
But even Brylcreem’s popularity would be creamed by another British import.
The Beatles: German stylist and photographer Astrid Kirchherr is credited with creating the Beatles’ image. Kirchherr disagrees, remembering that many young men in Germany, including her then-boyfriend, went for the long-haired look. Her photos soon had Brits ditching the Brylcreem and adopting the style, especially after John Lennon and Paul McCartney were pictured wearing the cut in Paris. George Harrison asked Kirchherr to cut his hair the same way. Kirchherr’s relationship with early Beatles bassist Stuart Sutcliffe is the stuff of young-romance legend (Sutcliffe died of a brain hemmorage on the eve of a Beatles tour of Germany in 1962), but her lasting contribution to pop culture endures as a stylish hallmark of the Korean K-Pop music scene of today.
West Side Story: It took “Hair” to bring hirstuteness to center stage on Broadway, but 1957’s West Side Story got there first. Creator Jerome Robbins packed the modern-day Romeo and Juliet drama with youthful hairstyle trends born in the early ’50s, and only goofy Officer Krupke and old square Detective Schrank wore a hat. The long-awaited film adaptation did not disappoint in 1961. It earned 11 Academy Award nominations and won ten of them. Male hat-wearers became synonymous with close-minded, old-fashioned, buffoonish authority figures. Unless you played baseball.