Steve Chapman

The end of another winter is approaching, which in my view offers many reasons for joy but one for regret. It is a reminder that despite the opportunity presented every year, I have yet to solve the perennial problem of the hat.

Anyone in an intemperate clime who has good sense knows better than to step outside on a January day without some sort of covering for the noggin. When the temperature is struggling to reach double digits, the snow is falling horizontally, and ice coats every visible surface, going bareheaded is about as sensible as going barefoot.

I found out the hard way shortly after moving to Chicago one winter many years ago. Like other baby boomers, I grew up in the years after President Kennedy made hats deeply unfashionable by refusing to wear one. The only ones I owned were caps advertising fishing tackle or farm machinery, suitable only on a boat or a softball diamond. I thought I needed a real hat like I needed a pocket watch and a monocle.

But one frigid February afternoon, I set out across the Michigan Avenue bridge on an errand. Halfway over, as the wind drilled icicles into my skull, I had an epiphany: JFK would have worn a hat if it was the difference between life and death. Having barely avoided a fatal bout of brain freeze, I resolved to buy a hat and wear it.

I did, and it warded off hypothermia until the arrival of spring. But I wasn't happy about it, for the simple reason that in our time, it is impossible to wear a hat without looking like a dork.

This is one of those problems that rouse my conservative instincts. In the old days, when we paid heed to centuries of accumulated wisdom, Americans understood the value of hats. But in the liberated atmosphere of the '60s, people jettisoned many traditional customs simply because they were traditional customs. Hats were seen as a suffocating imposition on our freedom to uncover our heads.

Today, we find ourselves with a far more oppressive constraint -- the chilly grip of fashion, which gives scant weight to considerations like comfort and health. In a world in which hardly anyone wears hats except for reasons of necessity, they radiate homely, unhip practicality. Even Brad Pitt, who recently did a photo shoot wearing various hats, couldn't make them work. So someone living in a wintry clime can look stupid and be warm, or look good and suffer.

If you're a grown man who wants to protect his skull from the elements, your choices are like the dining options at a maximum security prison: All so bad that you may prefer to do without.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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