A strange fact about me is that I do not own a single hat but am absolutely obsessed with them, especially on screen. I cannot pretend to present an exhaustive exploration of the most famous ones but have put together a selection of my own personal favourites below.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
The wide-brimmed black hat with the cream bow which Audrey Hepburn wears in this film was the first image that came to mind when I thought about famous hats in film. This has to be one of the most iconic of all time and accentuates her exquisite features. It looks fabulous with the black Givenchy shift dress and low heeled shoes she wears. No wonder George Peppard’s character says he’s amazed.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
“They’re young, they’re in love, and they kill people.” Rejecting Depression chic of the 1930s, Theadora Van Runkle’s designs remain timelessly cool and fit perfectly with the spirit of Arthur Penn’s film which is essentially about two beautiful people on the run who happen to be killers. I love the caps and fedora hats worn by Warren Beatty and, of course, Faye Dunaway’s iconic berets, especially worn with her perfect bob.
“Garbo laughs” was the slogan of Ernst Lubitsch’s great comedy which stars Greta Garbo as a Communist official sent to Paris to reprimand three of her comrades who have been living the high life at Moscow’s expense. She arrives a dull, humourless Marxist whose only interest is in facts, figures and social progress. Her eye lights on a hat in Paris which represents all that is frivolous about Western society. The best part is that as she sheds her Bolshevik ideals and becomes attracted to Melvyn Douglas’ character, she buys the hat. It should look utterly ridiculous but only makes Greta Garbo look even more beautiful.
The Apartment (1960)
Nobody really talks about hats in this film but they left a strong impression on me the first time I saw Billy Wilder’s wonderful film. Jack Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter is the only one to remove his hat for Shirley MacLaine’s Miss Kubelik as he gets into the lift. I’m always amazed by all those hats left at the cloakroom as the employees at the insurance company arrive for work. And then there’s the night of the office party when Jack Lemmon asks Shirley MacLaine what she thinks of his new bowler hat which he has just bought to celebrate his promotion. It’s a night of home truths when he finds out she’s the one who’s been to his apartment with his boss and she discovers what kind of man Mr. Sheldrake really is. It’s an incredibly poignant scene when he asks whether he should wear it at an angle instead and you feel her pain as she lends him her compact with the cracked mirror because, as she puts it, that’s the way she sees herself.
Adam’s Rib (1949)
In George Cukor’s terrific screwball comedy, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn play who high flying lawyers on different sides as she defends a woman (Judy Holliday) who tried to kill her unfaithful husband. In one of the early scenes, Spencer Tracy comes home late from work with a present for Katharine Hepburn, a rather twee hat with flowers on top which he immediately declares makes her look like Grandma Moses. His jaw drops though when he sees Judy Holliday wearing it on the opening day of her trial to present the image of a model wife and mother.
Gone With the Wind (1939)
OK, this is a bonnet and not a hat but it’s still a wonderful moment for headwear when Rhett brings Scarlet something green and fashionable from Paris, only to look in horror as she puts it on the wrong way. In Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Scarlett is always dressed in green gowns as it was the author’s favourite colour. Water Plunkett, the costume designer, sought to vary this a little but still dressed Scarlet in this colour for several important scenes, particularly the one where she makes a dress out of curtains.
Top Hat (1935)
I would argue that few people could wear a tuxedo like Fred Astaire. He makes this kind of elegance seem absolutely effortless, just like his extraordinary dancing. Of course, the epitome of this came in Mark Sandrich’s film where he performs a routine to ‘Top Hat, White Tie and Tails’, complete with lookalike extras and sings about “stepping out to breathe an atmosphere that simply reeks with class.”
Someone who could hold her own in the class stakes and wear a tuxedo and top hat just as well as Fred Astaire was Marlene Dietrich. Apparently, director Josef von Sternberg had seen her wearing a man’s suit and top hat in Berlin while she claimed to have been inspired by the drag artists there (see Classic Hollywood Style by Caroline Young for more details). This look became her signature style and prompted critic Kenneth Tynan to write that, “She has sex but no particular gender.”
Bringing up Baby (1938)
Cary Grant was one of the most elegant men in history who made suits look like a second skin because he wore them so well. I love this scene from Howard Hawks’ classic screwball comedy where after slipping on an olive which Katherine Hepburn’s character unwittingly left on the floor and destroying his top hat, he is forced to cover her embarrassment with it after ripping her dress and revealing her underwear. A pretty racy scene for the 1930s and the Hays’ Code.
Double Indemnity (1944)
In Billy Wilder’s noir masterpiece, Phyllis Dietrichson played by Barbara Stanwyck, wears a black hat with a veil to play the part of the grieving widow when she’s called in to the insurance company after her husband’s death. Unbeknown to her, Lola, her step daughter had seen her trying it on days before the accident, leading her to suspect Phyllis of murder.
Jules et Jim (1962)
Another chilling scene involving a similar hat comes in François Truffaut’s film when Catherine, played by Jeanne Moreau, is tired of being excluded from the argument about women and theatre her two male companions are having, stops by the edge of the river, pulls back the veil of her hat and jumps into the Seine. It’s a sign of her capriciousness and impulsiveness.
The Big Sleep (1946)
As Sam Spade in John Huston’s masterpiece ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and then as Philip Marlowe in Howard Hawks’ brilliant adaptation of ‘The Big Sleep’, Humphrey Bogart has a uniform of a private investigator, consisting of a trench and a hat. “Tough without a gun” is how Raymond Chandler described Bogie.
And who could ever forget the classic ending with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman standing at the airport in the fog, their hats tilted slightly towards one another as they say their goodbyes? Perhaps the finest hat moment in cinema.
Le Doulos/ Le Samouraï/ L’Armée des Ombres
Americanophile Jean-Pierre Melville not only adapted the noir/crime genre for French cinema and made it his own, he also adopted the gangster’s uniform. Hats play a key role.
‘Le Doulos'(1963) in French can either mean an informer or one who wears a hat. Melville plays on the ambiguity of characters and the similar appearance of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Serge Reggiani, particularly in the shattering conclusion.
In ‘Le Samouraï’ (1967), Alain Delon’s Jef wears a hat and trenchcoat like the armour of a warrior and lives by a strict code of conduct as a hitman until he makes a fatal mistake.
And in ‘L’Armée des Ombres’ (‘The Army in the Shadows’, 1969), Félix, played by Paul Crauchet, is encouraged to wear his hat in public to make it less likely he will be arrested by the Gestapo. The scene where he wears it in the streets of Old Lyon is haunting.
Bande à Part (1964)
And to finish, we have Anna Karina joining Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey in the dance scene from Godard’s brilliant and irreverent film. One of the most joyful scenes ever.