The Debunker: Did Kennedy's Inauguration Make Hats Uncool?

by Ken Jennings

Every schoolchild learns how John Quincy Adams used to deliver the State of Union address wearing only an oversized diaper and a velvet sash reading “BABY NEW YEAR 1823.” My fellow Americans, that’s just not true! And neither are the other four presidential misconceptions author and Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings will impeach this month.

Presidential Myth #3: John F. Kennedy Killed the Hat by Going Bare-Headed on Inauguration Day.

During the first season of the TV series Mad Men, the series’ fedora-wearing (and Nixon-voting) ad execs prophetically ponder the specter of a Kennedy presidency. “He’s inexperienced,” says Roger Sterling. “He doesn’t even wear a hat,” replies Bert Cooper.

In the most popular version of this myth, Kennedy decides to break with decades of tradition and goes hatless to his own inauguration. Hat sales crater and never recover. But look at a few photos of Inauguration Day 1960: Kennedy has not just a hat but a traditional silk top hat on, making him look like a younger, sexier, more Catholic version of the Monopoly guy! He wore the topper to the Capitol, to the parade, and to the balls that night. (He took it off for his swearing-in and inaugural speech, but that’s traditional.) In fact, JFK was a traditionalist in this area: Eisenhower had worn a homburg instead of a top hat to his two inaugurations. Kennedy was bringing hat-sexy back! Nixon was the last president to wear a top hat on Inauguration Day, and we know how that turned out. Jimmy Carter ended the tradition for good in 1976.

It’s true what Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper point out: Kennedy wore a hat on the campaign trail and in office much less often than his predecessors had. But that’s more a symptom than a cause of what was going on in American fashion at the time: the rise of youth culture and less formality in all areas of life. The decline of the hat was a gradual fifteen-year process, not an Inauguration Day death stroke. As Pete Campbell points out to his Eisenhower-era bosses on Mad Men: “I don’t know. You know who else doesn’t wear a hat? Elvis. That’s what we’re dealing with.”

“Remind me to stop hiring young people,” grumbles Bert Cooper.

Quick Quiz: Undershirt sales are often said to have collapsed in 1934 after what actor went bare-chested in It Happened One Night?

Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.