Only a Hat?

Investing meaning in an object is a risky proposition, not least because losing the object poses an existential danger beyond its material worth. And, of course, making assumptions about a person’s values based on, say, what they are wearing can be misleading.

And with these caveats in mind, I present Exhibit A: a mink hat that, for me, is freighted with meaning and weighted with contradictions.

Cecily Rocks The Hat (1999)

When I acquired The Hat in 1993 I could not have predicted that, 18 years later, it would become a potent symbol of my own personal and political evolution. At the time, I was a young mother living in Manhattan. My regular route between our apartment and my son’s nursery school took me past an upscale thrift shop on Third Avenue, and one winter day I stopped in to browse. The Hat caught immediately my eye from inside a display case. I remember asking the sales lady to take it out, and hesitating when I saw the price tag: $75 was more than I was prepared to pay for an impulse purchase. But when I tried The Hat on I felt a sense of destiny; it fit perfectly, and the color of the fur exactly matched my hair. Sold! I wore it home.

Dimly aware that the animal rights movement was gaining traction, I recall rationalizing my acquisition by the fact that The Hat had come into my hands pre-owned. In my mind, The Hat’s original owner bore the blame for perpetuating the fur trade, not me. This particular mink had died long ago, after all, and I was merely honoring its sacrifice by rescuing The Hat from being callously incinerated, buried in a landfill or dumped at sea, like the rest of Manhattan’s trash.

Any qualms I felt about wearing fur sprang from not wanting to resemble the trophy wives who showed up wearing full-length fur coats and dripping with diamonds to fetch their children from preschool. Wearing a frumpy down jacket and sweatpants, I dressed more like the nannies dispatched when the mothers’ tennis games or Chardonnay luncheons ran past pick-up time. I was defiantly not one of them – and feared becoming one of them – but The Hat made me feel like less of an interloper in their social orbit. Besides, it kept my head warm, stayed on when the arctic winds whipped through the city’s street canyons, and didn’t give me a static-y hat head like every other hat I’d worn.

Later that same winter I wore The Hat to an appointment at a real estate agency in Cambridge. My husband had taken a new job in Boston, and was living there already while I stayed in New York until the end of the school year, when I would follow with our two young children. I had no inkling that a few years later one of the agents I met that day would become my second husband, or that he would always claim to have been instantly “smitten” upon meeting The Woman in The Hat that day.

Now when I wear The Hat, I am reminded of how much I’ve changed since it first entered my possession. Most visibly, The Hat remains a rich, lustrous brown, while my hair has gone gray. I’m a vegetarian now, and while I still wear leather I would never buy fur, especially not since having kept a chinchilla as a family pet. While I don’t condone PETA’s tactics, I support in animal rights and admire the philosopher Peter Singer’s ideas on the subject. As a citizen of the “People’s Republic of Cambridge” for almost two decades, I have become as much of a cliché in my fierce liberalism as those East Side trophy wives were in their heedless materialism. I drive a hybrid car, shop at Whole Foods and wonder if 2011 will be the year I finally start composting. I sometimes feel conflicted wearing The Hat, as if I am betraying my progressive values walking around with a dead animal on my head, but then I remember it’s only a hat. Our choices define us, but only up to a point. The Hat is a reminder of how far I’ve come, and a symbol of how far I still have to go.

Two recent stories on NPR about the fur trade, past and present, inspired this post:

Fur, Fortune & American Empire

Is Eco-Conscious Fur an Oxymoron?

The Hat visits "The Gates" with me & Olivia (2005)


2 Responses to “Only a Hat?”

  1. 1 Mo Brock January 3, 2011 at 6:02 am

    It’s hard. I still wear leather shoes, but strive toward strict veganism. I think my leather is on its way out, once I find a good alternative for my feet. Good luck to you.

    • 2 jandev January 3, 2011 at 6:20 am

      Let me know what alternatives you find. I’m happiest wearing flip flops and sneakers but a northern climate and work conspire to keep me shod in leather. Enjoyed browsing your blog. Can identify with your hermit post but likewise trying to be less so.

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