The hats of author Ned Brown

Monday, April 13th 2020
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In our recent article on Wellema, much of the conversation in the comments centred around the relevance and wearability of hats today. 

So I thought it would be interesting to look into the habits and collection of a reader, in this case author and semi-retired political adviser Ned Brown. 

Ned spent much of his career in Washington, but now lives in Charleston, South Carolina, and is  long-time hat wearer. He tends to wear high crowns, and also has a penchant for big brims - both perhaps balanced by his physical stature. 

He sees hats as very much an expression of his character, although very practical too - particularly in the sun of the southern US. And maintains them like old friends. 

Below is, first, Ned in his own words, followed by a few questions from me. 

“My first hat was a Texas Rancher's Borsalino that I bought in San Antonio, Texas over 30 years ago. I was living in New Jersey at the time, and wore that hat nearly every weekend from October to April. It was an essential part of my casual wardrobe. The late, great author Pat Conroy [above, left, with Ned] tried unsuccessfully to convince me that the hat would look better on him.

In the 1980's, I was working for Young & Rubicam Advertising on Madison Avenue in New York. By chance, Worth & Worth hat shop was located just down the street. They had a fabulous selection of quality hats. I would regularly venture in during my lunch break, and whenever there was a sale, I would invariably buy a new hat. Sadly, they moved in the '90's, as did I.

I did not start wearing and collecting straw hats until I came to Charleston, South Carolina over 20 years ago. In the South, hats serve a practical purpose to keep you cooler in the intense summer heat. I also drive a Mini convertible, and have a specific hat to wear that will not blow off when the car is going 90 kph.

Borsalino almost went out of business 40 years ago when hats fell out of favour. Fortunately, they became a prestige item for Orthodox Jewish men to own and wear in the the New York area. A young man receiving his first Borsalino after his bar mitzvah was a rite of passage. They kept Borsalino in business.

Hats used to play an essential role in dictating the design of certain things. For instance, the roof height of the 1950's and early 1960's Rolls-Royce or Bentley had to accommodate a gentleman wearing a hat. When President Kennedy went hatless at his January 1961 inauguration, that event almost single-handedly killed the hat business, and the roof height of Rolls/Bentleys subsequently dropped by the late '60s.

Hats should be an essential part of a well-dressed man's wardrobe. 

And by the way, like properly shined shoes, women notice. But just remember, no man will ever look as good as Cary Grant wearing a hat, but that shouldn't keep you from trying."

Permanent Style: What advice would you have for someone that doesn't normally wear hats? How should they start?

Ned: Always start with functionality: how will the hat be used, and how does it fit into your life? Next, quality: like good shoes, get the best materials and craftsmanship. And finally is style: how does it fit your personal look?

How would you say your hats fit your personal look? How did you discover that? 

I read a remarkable book some years ago called ‘Crowns’. It was a photo book about African-American woman and their Sunday hats for church. One protocol I learned was that a woman never shares her hats with anyone; they are distinctly hers, and an expression of who she is. I sort of used that guidance in my own hat selection, and my own style. 

Several years ago, I was at a polo match wearing my wide brim Sam Houston Panama hat. After the match, Nacho Figueres (champion polo player and Ralph Lauren model) rode by, pointed to me, and said, "Cool hat."

Did you find it difficult, or feel self-conscious, when you first started wearing hats regularly?

Not really. I started wearing hats when I was about 30. I suspect some thought it was a tad dandy-ish, but people became accustomed to seeing me with a hat on - sort of a personal signature thing.

Have you ever had hats made bespoke? 

No, but I plan to have the casual wide brim Churchill wore made bespoke, though I will skip the PM's jumpsuits. 

How do you look after your hats? 

I had a wonderful gentleman to care for my hats when I lived in New York. Now that I live in Charleston, I gently hand wash them myself. Humidity is the enemy of beaver and hare, so I store my hats in a climate controlled closet on a wire shelf for proper air circulation.

How do you wash them yourself?

This is an early fall rite of passage for me. You need a steam iron, clean cloth, mild, organic cleaning solution, a bristle shoe brush dedicated to hat cleaning, a pint, and then plop yourself in front of the telly to watch a Premier League match.

Gently use the brush over all parts of the beaver or hare to get out any dust, which also reinvigorates the materials. Then, lightly spray the hat with the solution. Also spray a folded cloth with the solution, and press down on it with a steam iron so that it absorbs the heat and steam. 

Softly wipe down the hat, and keep repeating. Each hat takes about 20 minutes to do. I use a bit of Lexol on a rag for the inner leather band. 

[Above: Ned's current rotation of hats sitting on his bed - all Borsalino save the green, which is Christy's. Below that, the inside of the Rancher's hat - Ned's first acquisition, and by his own admission, really in need of a new sweatband]

Do you wear different sizes or styles of hats with different clothes? For example, an overcoat on the one hand, and just a summer shirt on the other?

I wear black, brown, blue or green to match what I am wearing. But otherwise no, I don’t vary them with other clothes. 

However, some proportion to the brim size and the lapel with the coat, for example, seems right. I think you've got it right from the photos I've seen of you wearing a coat and a hat

I have several wonderful bespoke overcoats hanging in my closet, but living in Charleston, I can wear them perhaps 2-3 times in a season. And as for traveling with an overcoat, I try to make it practice during winter to not go to a place colder than the place I left.

["Hats should have a story," says Ned. "In this photo, notice that the edge of hat is frayed on both sides. Two of my 4-month-old pups in Jamaica found it, and thought it would be a fun tug-of-war toy."]

Ned's forthcoming book, The Caribbean Golden Era: Jamaica 1946-1962, will be released in Fall 2020.