Jason Ursua has been sporting baseball caps his whole life. But about two years ago, the 28-year-old expanded his hat collection to include cadet caps and wool fedoras. He now owns 10 "grown-up" hats from Berkeley, Calif.'s Goorin Bros., and tosses them on to complete his evening looks.
"It's a fresh, mature look," said Ursua of Pinole, Calif. "And everyone's wearing them now."
He's right. From the recent runway shows of Milan and Paris to the men of hip-hop and Hollywood, hats are hot. But the current hat culture is different from that of the pre-1960s, when men didn't leave the house without a long brim fedora. Experts say it was more about conformity and etiquette then, and that today's man wears hats — from bombers and fedoras to cadets and newsboys — to showcase his style and individuality.
Jason Avery of San Francisco says he selects which hat to wear depending on his mood. He owns seven fedoras ranging in price from $60 to $230 and says for him, spending time in a hat shop is not unlike a woman in a shoe store. He could roam around for hours.
"If it's a suit night, I'll wear a black fedora," says Avery, 38. "But if we're going out dancing, I'll go with a lighter weight gray one with a blue rim." On summer days, he'll go even lighter, with a white-trimmed oatmeal-colored hat.
"For me, it goes back to my cultural roots," says Avery, who is half African-American and grew up in New York. "When we'd go out as a family on the weekends, my grandpa always dressed up and wore a hat."
But hats are not just for dressing up. As the co-owner of Jorcal Hat Co. in San Jose, Calif.'s Westfield Oakridge Mall, Rick Callender sees a range of customers and their hat expressions.
"You'd be surprised how many guys I see at the mall in jeans, a T-shirt, and a fedora," says Callender, who opened his shop in 2009. He says he was looking to open a business that was on the cutting edge of fashion.
"In mid-2008, I was looking at stars who wear hats, like Usher, Brad Pitt and Justin Timberlake," continues Callender, who sells a lot of driving caps at the moment. "And it was then that I said, 'This accessory is going to make a comeback.'"
That's the thing — now, hats are a fashion accessory, says Macy Torres, the store manager at Berkeley's Goorin Bros., a San Francisco-based company that's been in the business since 1865. "Hat culture has totally changed," she says. "It's not about etiquette or taking your hat off in front of a lady anymore. It's about fashion. And in a tough economy, it makes a lot more sense to buy a $45 hat than an expensive suit or new outfit."
Goorin Bros., which has four locations in the Bay Area, has done its part to casualize and modernize hats by shortening brims on fedoras and offering cotton blends and a broad range of patterns. Some are made with recycled materials and are designed by local artists.
Not exactly the vibe you get from watching AMC's "Mad Men." Hats made their slow exit when President John F. Kennedy showed up to his 1961 inauguration with a bare head, says Michael Carbaugh, an instructor in the School of Fashion at San Francisco's Academy of Art University. The counterculture took off, roof clearances on cars were reduced, and hats became a symbol of conformity, almost a nuisance, he adds.
"Men who wear hats in contemporary society are celebrating their personalities," says Carbaugh, who was particularly fond of the big, broad-brimmed Borsalinos at the Lanvin show in Paris last month. "Wearing a hat says, 'I've got style.' "
The current hat culture may be fueled by fashion and celebrity trends, but hat lovers such as Carmelo Santiago of Castro Valley are happily stuck in the past.
Every time Santiago reaches for his bowler or fedora, he is reminded of his father, who wore his hats pulled down low in the front, or his grandfather, who never left the house without a cowboy hat.
"When you find the right one, it's like wearing a suit," Santiago says. "You feel like a million bucks."
If you shop at Paul's Hat Works in San Francisco, where handmade beaver fur felt hats start at $650, you could spend close to a million on a hat collection. Hat maker Abbie Dwelle and her three co-owners took over the shop and its 93-year legacy in 2009.
They source all materials, from the felt and leather to the ribbon bands that wrap around fedoras, in the United States, and hand-sew everything to order in the shop. Recently, she's seeing a lot of young faces.
"We're starting to see high schoolers coming in looking for short brim fedoras with Mom's assistance," Dwelle says.
But the majority of her customers are men who are not shocked by the sticker price and understand the value and quality of their hats.
"I see men who realize, 'Hey, I look really smart and classy and this is not a baseball cap so I look more like a man,' she says. " 'I want more.' "