Debbie Henderson’s work space is a shrine to men’s headwear. Hats of every conceivable style and color are hung on coatracks and stacked half-a-dozen high on tables — they’re even tucked away on bookshelves. Colorful vintage hat boxes are displayed on high shelves that run the length of the room.
Debbie’s love of costume design began in the eighth grade, and has followed her throughout her life; she’s worked for 32 years at Wittenberg University as Costume Shop Manager and Designer for theater productions. Her passion for men’s hats began when she started work on her Ph.D. at the Union Institute nearly 20 years ago. As a costume designer, she knew that clothing would play a part in her research, but she wasn’t sure what her focus would be.
"[And then] I was watching Sherlock Holmes on TV," she said. "And I realized that Watson had on a brown derby, not black. And I went, 'Oh, that’s different.' All of a sudden, it just hit me: Men’s hats! I didn’t know anything about them, really."
And neither did most people, Debbie says, as there wasn’t much information out there about men’s hats, an unfortunate historical oversight that she intended to rectify.
"What I did is, I stumbled into a black hole. When I put my committee together, one woman said, 'Well, why don’t you do women’s hats?' It’s just, everybody does women’s hats. There are hundreds of books out there on women’s hats. There are now some books on men’s hats — I did four books, and ended up kind of the world’s expert on men’s hats."
Debbie traveled all over the world completing her dissertation research. She visited dozens of museums and historical societies; she went to Italy and Canada and Prague, and even interviewed Clint Eastwood’s costume designer. But she says she was surprised, even in the museums she visited, about the general lack of love for men’s hats
"One of the first museums I went to, the curator, when he was getting the men’s hats out, said, 'Oh, gee. If I could throw these away, I would.' They just don’t care," she says.
People who know Debbie often donate quite a few hats to her collection. Something that also happened during this interview because my husband sent along a hat.
"I’ve never said no to a hat," says Debbie. "Never, ever, ever. This is in a Knox hat box of New York City. It’s perfectly new never been worn. Sabin Brothers Men’s Wear, Wilmington, Ohio, size 7. It’s gray, it’s fur felt, kind of a cross between a Homburg, which is a little more formal hat, and a fedora. But it could be anywhere from the ‘60s on. And this is cool: It’s got a little red feather in the hat band, which gives it a little more sporty look."
Debbie’s on-the-spot hat identification is the kind of thing she has to do as part of her theatre work — any play that takes place before 1960, she says, means the men on stage have to wear hats. And finding the right hat is paramount.
"Cabaret opened a month after spring break," says Debbie. "The Sally Bowles love interest, he was supposed to be in brown tones. He was traveling on a train in the play; he would never have shown up on a train without a hat. I didn’t have a good brown fedora, and I want a really good hat. So we go to antique malls everywhere we are...and there was a gorgeous, 1930s brown fedora that fit him perfectly."
While the kinds of hats she’s studied are either props or historical fancies these days, Debbie says it’s important to remember that men’s hats were once a part of everyday life.
"If you look at pictures of miners or people in any occupation," she says. "They had a hat on that indicated their class, what they did. People wore their hats, then they passed them on to relatives, and they wore them. So, unless they were saved, like your father-in-law’s hat that was never worn and it was in a closet, they wore them out."
And though the era of daily formal hat wearing is mostly past, Debbie says she thinks more men should consider adding them back into their wardrobes.
"It gives you a real sense of style. You can crease it and bend it to your own personality. I just think they give you a very individual look. I think it makes you stand out. You know, I just want to stand out, I guess — theater people are like that."
Culture Couch is made possible through a grant from the Ohio Arts Council.