Recently my wife was reading a book entitled A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) by Betty Smith when she came across a passage which was interesting that she shared with me:
One day, Hildy asked Johnny to bring someone for Katie, her girl friend, the next time they went dancing. Johnny obliged. The four of them rode out to Canarsie on the trolley. The boys wore straw katies with a cord attached to the brim and the other end to their coat lapel. The stiff ocean breeze blew the hats off and there was much laughter when the boys pulled the skimmers back by the cords.1
I had not heard of this kind of hat before so I did a bit of research. I couldn’t find any reference to a katie hat, but I was able to find a hat called a skimmer, which is also known as a boater, basher, or sennit hat 2. Basically it is what we commonly call a barbershop hat today (see picture). They are still popular in Italy where they are known as boater hats among gondoliers. But there was something else in this passage that I wanted to research a bit.
The thing that struck me in this passage was the peculiar practice of how the boys attached their hats to their lapels by a cord to prevent them from flying away in the wind. Betty Smith’s novel addressed a pre-World War I time period, so I thought I might be looking for a tradition in the early 20th century or earlier. A little more searching revealed that there are still hats today that are secured in this manner.
One interesting discussion I found was on a thread of a hat forum dedicated particularly to Fedoras in which their was talk about the “lapel cord” included with certain hats, and how to use it. Many responded that such a feature was critical in windy areas, to keep one’s hat from blowing away and being lost.3
I found a couple other references to a lapel cord. One was on the description of a vintage mens homburg hat that was being sold on eBay. Part of its description reads, “As an added feature, there’s a lapel cord and button attached so Milord’s hat won’t blow away on a windy day.”
Even some modern boater’s hats still have cord clips to attach to your shirt so that if they blow off your head they will stay secure and won’t go in the water. This is an interesting feature that I had not known much about before.