There was a time when Joe van Smoot thought wearing a hat was archaic and silly. He remembered pictures of his grandfather looking very stylish in his straw fedora when he worked as a shipping clerk in 1907 Jakarta. And he vividly recalled watching his father head off to work during the 1960s in a felt Holbrook and thinking, "Jesus Christ, Pop is such a square."
But that was a long time ago. Now, standing among the bowlers and fedoras and kensingtons in Orange County's newest hat store, van Smoot changed his mind. Today van Smoot, an account manager and Huntington Beach resident, is the proud owner of a brand-new $30 Gambler woven from genuine raffia straw fibers.
The decision was not an easy one.
"This is sweet," said van Smoot, 38, while admiring a $110 Churchill at the Boston-based Hatland of America outlet in the Orange Circle. "There are so many hats here, I don't even know where to begin. Take this one—I can see this baby coming back in a big way."
Van Smoot said he found the store while walking around the circle with his wife. They had glanced in and joked about how outdated and lame hats were. But that brief first visit stirred something inside van Smoot.
"I started renting old movies in which the leading men wore hats," he said. "Casablanca, Key Largo, Sunset Boulevard and all the Edward G. Robinson pictures I could find. And as I'm watching them, I'm thinking, 'Gee, those guys look pretty tough.' That's really important today—looking tough."
As he spoke, van Smoot picked up a $67 straw Dobbs hat and placed it on his head. Tilting it forward, van Smoot then turned suddenly around and shouted, "Bang! Bang!" as he pretended to shoot one of the clerks with his extended index fingers. "You'll never take me alive, coppers," he added.
Not everyone close to van Smoot agreed with his decision to buy a hat. Standing nearby while van Smoot walked up to other customers and repeated dialogue snippets from the movie ThePublic Enemy, his wife, Sandy, shook her head sadly. "He's like this all the time," said the 22-year-old community-college student and retired hardcore-porn star. "Every day for the past month, he has talked about getting a hat—during dinner, when we're watching Moesha, even when I'm working out. I finally got sick of it and said, 'Fine, you want a hat; let's go get you a hat, and then maybe I can do sit-ups in peace.' Basically, I don't give a damn anymore if he wants to look like a dork."
A few moments later, van Smoot returned, now wearing a black Stetson modeled after a Cavalry hat from the Civil War, retailing for $175. "Listen, pardner," he said, wrapping his arms around his wife. "What say you and me ride on down into the valley and get some Injuns?"
Pulling away, Sandy van Smoot frowned. "Tell me—please God, please tell me—you're not getting that one."
And so it went—van Smoot would wander along the racks trying on different styles while his wife followed, shaking her head and apologizing to fellow customers.
"We see this a lot, actually," said Ben Smith, one of the clerks who assisted van Smoot. "Since hats—especially expensive, handcrafted ones like these—aren't exactly mainstream anymore, people come in here with absolutely no idea what they want.
"We get guys coming in here whose sole concern seems to be 'hat hair,'" said Smith, referring to the well-known phenomenon of hats matting hair into strange, often embarrassing angles. "It's a big issue—we all know that—but most people don't realize that hat hair isn't the fault of the hat. There are ways you can wear your hat that completely eliminate the possibility of getting hat hair."
Sighing, Smith added that van Smoot's wife "definitely wasn't making this any easier."
After nearly 20 minutes, van Smoot finally narrowed his selection to a $215 Borsalino and the Gambler. He seemed smitten with the Borsalino, a world-famous design made of Italian fur felt, even though his wife blanched when she noticed the price tag.
"I remember my old man had one of these," van Smoot said. "He got it in Italy when he was in the Army. He never saw any combat, so I guess he just bought it off some wop."
Van Smoot admired the Borsalino, even tried it on, but in the end placed it back on the rack. "Nope, it's not for me," he said. "Way too snooty."