Culture Hopping in a Fedora
SPOTTING a Borsalino, a black wide-brimmed felt fedora, in the traditionally Jewish section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is no strange thing. What was surprising was the wearer: Theophilus London, a hip-hop artist from Trinidad. “This one is from the Jewish store,” Mr. London said, motioning toward southern Williamsburg, where the haredi still outnumber the hipsters.
Called either a “black hat” or Borsalino, for the style’s most famous and expensive brand, the simple hat is most commonly associated with ultra-Orthodox non-Hasidic Jews, as well as members of the Chabad-Lubavitch sect, the Hasidic group based in Crown Heights.
But in recent months, the quasi-religious hat has not only popped up on the other side of Williamsburg, where skinny jeans and canvas sneakers still rule, but also in Cole Haan advertisements as a secular fashion accessory.
“I like wearing it because I know it’s genuine,” said Monika Jonevski, a marketing manager at Adidas who first saw one in the window of a hatter on the Lower East Side. “It’s been around in Jewish shops for ages.”
Mr. London didn’t seek his out, either. He was in Williamsburg recording a cover of the Nat King Cole song “Calypso Blues” when he stumbled across Bencraft Hatters, an old-school hattery on Broadway that offers more than 100 styles of felt hats by Borsalino, Stetson, Puertofino and Luigi Baroni. He bought a Puertofino for $120. “I liked the shape of it,” Mr. London said.
Since then, it’s become a part of his urban uniform. He wears it to pick up dinner at his local roti shop, to parties at the Top of the Standard, and even onstage.
This is not the first time that the Borsalino has hopped cultures. “This is an item of clothing that the Jews didn’t design, and didn’t invent, but they took it on and have given it a cachet in their own world,” said Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College and the author of “Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry.”
While the tradition of Jews wearing black headgear goes back ages (it was a sign of mourning for the loss of Jerusalem), it wasn’t until the 1960s that ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, as well as Chabad-Lubavitch Jews, began wearing the black fedora to distinguish themselves.
“As the differences between left and right begin to crystallize — when the trauma of survival is behind the Orthodox Jews and they’re re-establishing themselves in North America and Israel — they’re looking for some way to ensure they’re not assimilated, that they don’t disappear,” Professor Heilman said. “It’s not just the black hat. It’s the black suit jacket, the black pants and the white shirt, black shoes and glasses with black frames.”
Contemporary fashion has long drawn on religion for inspiration. “There are so many examples,” said Kenneth Ramaekers, director of Modemuseum Hasselt, a fashion museum in Hasselt, Belgium. Mr. Ramaekers cited Jeanne Lanvin’s and Balenciaga’s adaptation of the cassock in the 1920s and 1960s respectively; Jean Paul Gaultier’s 1993 women’s-wear collection, with its strong Hasidic inspiration; and Walter Van Beirendonck’s burqa look for men in 2008.
Last February, Thom Browne sent models down the runway dressed as nuns; their habits were removed to reveal the designer’s playful suits and colorful patterns. “Designers have always loved the traditions of religious as well as military uniforms,” said Madeline Weeks, fashion director at GQ magazine.
But that may not explain the black hat’s newfound appeal on the street. “I don’t think the yeshiva boys or the hipsters get their black hats from any kind of religious background,” said Maya Balakirsky Katz, who teaches art history at Touro College and is the author of “The Visual Culture of Chabad.” “It’s all from ‘Mad Men.’ In the ’50s, when the actual Mad Men were wearing Borsalinos, yeshiva students who were living in Manhattan said ‘Oh, this is how to acculturate.’ And that style is back in fashion again.”
The trend is by no means limited to men. Leandra Medine, the author of the style blog The Man Repeller, who was raised as an Orthodox Jew, gave a tongue-in-cheek nod to women wearing the “temple topper” trend last November. “Some ladies find themselves taking these masculine cues to new heights, Crown Heights, if you will,” she wrote.
Added Mordechai Rubinstein, a former yeshiva student who is behind the men’s-wear blogMister Mort: “Women are pulling these hats off better than men today. It’s so cool to see a woman wearing a Borsalino really well — brim down, crown pinched, tilted to one side, with such confidence.”
That’s not to say Mr. Rubinstein disapproves of the look for men. “A Borsalino is one of those classic pieces of men’s wear that every man should own,” he said. He gives a special acknowledgment to Mr. London. “Theophilus wears the hat, while most men are letting the hat wear them.”
Leaf Greener of Elle China.