Chapeau!

How I love a hat. Sadly, I look ridiculous in most of them. It takes a special person to wear a hat well and, while they are increasingly rare these days, no one does it better than the French.

Like so many other things, hats are not always hats in France. If you refer to your baseball cap as a chapeau, you will quickly be corrected: Vous voulez dire une casquette? A ski hat is un bonnet (not even a toque, as we Canucks call it!). Just to keep us on our toes, a chef’s hat in French is called une toque (pronounced: tuck), a term that can also refer to the master chefs themselves, like the late Monsieur Paul.

There is a delightful generic term for hats in French: un couvre-chef. I have no idea where it comes from, but it makes perfect poetic sense: ‘couvre’ is cover and ‘chef’ in this sense is your head.

So let’s look at a few examples. With the passing of Karl Lagerfeld this week, it seems somehow fitting to start by tipping my hat to the great house of Chanel.

* Side note: it may be just me and advancing age, but the first thing I want to know when someone dies is what they died of. The Kaiser of fashion, as he was known, was 85 and died in hospital after a ‘brief illness’. The iconic Chanel designer was known for keeping things private, and also being quite the health buff, but rumours are that it was pancreatic cancer.

Coco Chanel was a milliner in her early days, and was also often seen sporting a hat. I love the model’s expression in this pic – it looks like the grande dame may have been poking her with a pin!

Geneviève de Fontenay is the former head of the Miss France pageant and probably the Frenchwoman most famous for her hats.

Brigitte Macron must not like the way she looks in hats as she is never seen wearing them. Her husband, on the other hand, looks pretty good with a lid. The French president is seen here trying on a chechia, the traditional Tunisian version of the beret.

Speaking of which, the beret so often depicted in movies about France is rarely seen here. Perhaps the indigenous population of beret-wearing, baguette-toting Frenchmen have all retired to a remote village in the south of France, a place where accordion music plays on every street corner.

Pablo Picasso, who lived in the south of France, wore his beret well.

Those remote country villages may be patrolled by gendarmes who wear the traditional képi, as made famous by Louis de Funès in Le Gendarme de St. Tropez.

On a more serious note, we should not forget the kippa (nor confuse it with the képi as I often do), also called a yarmulke. The traditional cap worn by Jewish men has been in the news this week along with the frightening resurgence of anti-Semitic acts in France. I am horrified to see this happening, don’t understand it and can’t explain it.

The expression in the title of this post, ‘Chapeau!’ or ‘chapeau bas’, means to tip one’s hat in admiration or congratulate someone for a good performance. As can be seen in this photo from The Avengers, a television series known rather verbosely in France as ‘Chapeau melon et bottes de cuir’ (bowler hat and leather boots).

I do love a bowler hat.

Hats off to you for reading this far!

Do you have a favourite hat?

38 comments

  1. francetaste · February 21, 2019

    We are thinking alike–at the market last weekend I was snapping shots of men in hats. I see plenty of berets around here, almost always on men, in red or black, worn absolutely without irony. Usually on older guys. Although it was a fairly nice day on Saturday, with temps around 10C, at least a third of the people were wearing headgear, especially men (because women don’t want to mess up their hair?).
    There’s a local who makes Geneviève de Fontenay seem like a minimalist. She always wears an enormous hat, with her hair pulled up beneath it, large sunglasses, a high-necked blouse or top, a long jacket or knee-length dress, and generously flared pants.
    I often wear something, though lately I’ve opted for an infinity scarf pulled up around my ears on cold, windy days, rather than a hat, which rarely covers those ears. Hats make a big difference in warmth. In summer, I don’t leave home without one for the sun protection.
    And I agree 100% on cause of death–first thing I want to know! I wondered about Karl when he didn’t take a bow at the last show, but I didn’t realize he was in his 80s.

    • MELewis · February 21, 2019

      ‘Les grands esprits se croisent,’ as they say! I look forward to reading your post and especially a pic of your hat lady! I should add that like you, I rarely leave home without a hat in winter and summer. I have a near pathological dislike of the sun in my face, looks be damned!

  2. phildange · February 21, 2019

    I used to wear many sorts of “couvre-chefs” in my extrovert youth but the one I always prefered and still like is what we call “panama”, any size or width, depending on the mood .

    (About this secret village in the South-West I Know where it is but we only learn its place during a ritual ceremony received from our ancient Druids, when they infuse the essence of Frenchness in some secret level of our self and we must never reveal anything to ordinary humans after the ceremony . The penalty can by awful – I heard some trespassers started loving watching cricket games for instance ! It’s a perfect place for a real French : we can smoke everywhere, we can drive as fast as we want with no f… seat-belt, everything that was and still is normal for a real French but disappeared from the dumb consensual alien world ) .

    (And I really find that “Bowler hat and leather boots” perfectly suited the vibe of the serie . When I discovered the original title I was disappointed) .

    • MELewis · February 21, 2019

      I love your idea! A mythical French town like the famous Brigadoon in Ireland that only appears once in a hundred years and inspired a musical. What can we call it? Who shall direct the movie? Or shall we create a kind of theme park where people can come and act impossibly French! Only Gauloises cigarettes will be allowed, high cholesterol foods and wine will flow like water! I think you are really on to something Phil! 😜

      • coteetcampagne · February 23, 2019

        Campagne is pretty unredeemed and stubbornly hangs onto it’s French working man’s soul

  3. maidinbritain · February 21, 2019

    What a fun post! I was forced to wear hats at my various schools, panamas, berets, felt bowlers and straw boaters and though I pretended like everyone else to loathe them I loved them really. I have a stack of hats finely balanced on top of each other on my ‘dummy’ I got from a closing down sale in a dress shop. Dummy also wears a big necklace of turquoise that needs to hang up for its welfare. I have a broad purple felt, a fine paper expanding black sun hat, a large straw hat, a black furry sheepskin pillbox-plus, a brown felt and velvet mid-size hat the size of the Coco Chanel one in your pic … and others! Not all balanced, I hasten to add. But I truly love vast broad brim hats. I had a huge black straw one (think 4 weddings and a funeral) which faded in the sun and when going to a wedding my husband painted it for me with masonry paint… it was sooooo heavy! And now consigned to history. Cloche hats are divine but no longer suit me. To be honest, I’ve worn a woolly hat wiht bobble more often this winter than anything else! And I loved the Avengers. Pine for Diana Riggs’ outfits. Thanks for a cheery start to my day.

    • MELewis · February 21, 2019

      Your hat collection sounds amazing! Also, I want one of those dressmaker’s dummies. It must be so much fun to dress it up! I confess to wearing a large, red Stetson-style fedora once upon a time. It made me feel like a star. Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for sharing your comments!

  4. nessafrance · February 21, 2019

    I also look awful in hats, so I’m rather glad that they’ve gone out of fashion. British women still tend to wear them to weddings, but I refuse to. We rarely see anyone wearing berets in our part of SW France – much to the chagrin of the beret manufacturers, of which there is now only one in France – but caps are still reasonably popular. One day perhaps I will stumble upon that stereotyped village of which you speak, where they all wear berets and carry baguettes (don’t forget the string of onions…).

    • MELewis · February 21, 2019

      What I love about British hats of the royal family type is how they manage to wear them while keeping a straight face. Some are so wonderfully eccentric! And yes, the onions are another cliché. Thanks for that, I will add it to my list. 😄

  5. Caffe · February 21, 2019

    I also do not look good in any hat and other caps at all.
    Which is unfortunately quite annoying in winter, when outside is – 10 degrees 🙂

    • MELewis · February 21, 2019

      I am beyond caring now and wear warm hats in winter and baseball caps or bobs the rest of the time to stay warm and keep the sun out of my eyes. And somehow I like the way they make feel even if I know I look silly!

      • Caffe · February 21, 2019

        Ha ha, me to if we are talking about winter caps.
        At summer – we do not have such strong sun, so I can show my hair ;-

  6. 355101pkl · February 21, 2019

    A modern man needs more head protection than his forebears. My father lost his hair was a young man as an soldier during the war. He was lucky that was all he lost. I remember as a child how he strived to keep the little hair that he had by combing over the bit that grew in the front to try and conceal his baldness. Such was the nature of men in the 1950’s Anyone who remembers Bobby Charlton play football will know what I am talking about. In the winter he wore a peaky blinder flat cap, a symbol of the working class 1950’s man
    Nowadays when men lose their hair they shave it all off .You never see the comb over thank goodness! but a hat is essential to protect the bald pate from the hot sun, so it really does not matter what sort of head cover we wear. I am fortunate to have kept all my hair although i spend time in Spain and find I need a hat to keep the hot sun off my head and out of my eyes when driving.. I opt for a simple baseball style hat . It makes me look young and tough and is warning to aggressive drivers to keep a lid on their roadrage .:-)

    • MELewis · February 21, 2019

      Unfortunately the comb-over persists in certain circles…I can think of at least one particularly ugly and orange example across the pond! 😏 You are fortunate to have managed to keep a full head of hair and very smart to protect yourself from the Spanish sun with a cap. Definitely does the trick and sends a message!

    • phildange · February 21, 2019

      ” A peaky blinder flat cap, a symbol of the working class 1950’s man”. Does my all-time favourite English newspapers cartoons hero , the (not)working class icon Andy Capp wear thie type of cap you mean ?

  7. 355101pkl · February 21, 2019

    I could not thnk of any other description . It was just an Andy Capp flat cap with a peak really, not even as stylish as the Peaky Blinder. However if you are aware of the hidden surprise in the “Peaky Blinder” You would admire him more for just wearing the flat cap without the hidden razor blade.

    • phildange · February 21, 2019

      Oh, I already admire him . A good old 50s English working class hero is something to be 🙂

  8. George Lewis · February 21, 2019

    Just a note- Bridadoon was a mythical village in the Scottish Highlands, not Ireland. You may have insulted both your Scottish and Irish ancestors.

    Sent from George’s iPad

    >

    • MELewis · February 21, 2019

      Ha, ha! You got me there! 😆

  9. midihideaways · February 21, 2019

    Like you, I feel that I don’t look too good with a hat, but that doesn’t necessarily stop me 🙂 In the summer, a straw hat is a must to protect from the sun in the south. In the winter, a wooly bonnet is de rigeur to protect my ears…
    Oh, and yes there are a few people in our village, who proudly wear a beret, but our’s is not that mythical village!!

    • MELewis · February 21, 2019

      Hats are just so darn sensible, aren’t they? I’m sure there are one or two brimmed that have been not too embarrassing, but the woolly bonnets definitely make me look like a pin head! Of course, we are probably our own worst critics (or so I tell myself…). Still, I’d love to wear a beret for fun….maybe I’ll experiment with one for a new profile pic! 🧐

      • midihideaways · February 25, 2019

        What a good idea to get a beret picture for your profile!! There are some really cool ones out there!!

  10. LensScaper · February 21, 2019

    I look daft in most hats (my wife tells me), but slowly losing my hair, a hat is becoming more necessary. The Times devoted two pages to Karl Lagerfeld’s obituary yesterday. He was reported to have died of Pancreatic Cancer – a cancer that is often difficult to diagnose and almost always impossible to operate on because of its position. There was a lovely quote today by a columnist who interviewed him: ‘We have to adapt to the time. The time does not adapt to you’. True of Haute Couture, but also true of so many aspects of life. R.I.P

    • MELewis · February 21, 2019

      What a lovely quote,full of wisdom. That philosophy may explain his success. I suppose it’s hard to feel that a death at 85 is tragic, but pancreatic cancer is brutal and he was clearly still on his game. Thanks for sharing and keep those hats on your head!

  11. Susanne · February 21, 2019

    I so enjoyed this post because I AM a hat person with a comprehensive collection. I should move to France. I tend to stick out like a throbbing thumb when I wear any hat other than a Canadian toque or a baseball cap.

    • MELewis · February 21, 2019

      Oh you’d probably stick out here, too. (I know I do…😂) But somehow I suspect you wear them well!

  12. Ali · February 21, 2019

    I very rarely venture out of doors without a hat….year round. It’s my signature. Pulled down low with sunglasses. I don’t have to fuss with my hair, and I always look mysterious…Without my hat, sometimes I’m not recognized. I have many in different colours….sunglasses and hats :-))
    Ali

    • MELewis · February 21, 2019

      How very interesting. Are you a star? Reveal your identity at once please! 😎 That said, I approve of your fashion statement. I often wear hats and am happy to hide my un-made-up face and bad hair day behind the hat and glasses.

      • Ali · February 21, 2019

        No makeup, and messy hair….no one needs to know….
        A

  13. acflory · February 22, 2019

    lol – I have a round face and look utterly ridiculous in a hat. I do like reading about them though. 🙂

    • MELewis · February 26, 2019

      Perhaps it’s a matter of shape? I know that with my square jaw line I need a good brim to balance things out. But sometimes we enjoy things on others that we hate on ourselves.

      • acflory · February 26, 2019

        lol – maybe. I’d love to be able to wear a fascinator. 🙂

  14. Joanne Sisco · February 25, 2019

    What a delightful post! I love hats and I love all things French – the two of which you’ve woven together nicely 🙂 Sadly I look like a pinhead in a hat.

    I learned something new – the word “couvre-chef”. I’m wondering if this is a distinctly France-French word since I’ve never heard it used among French-Canadians.

    • MELewis · February 26, 2019

      That’s funny — it seems a lot of us love hats but don’t think we look good in them. 😭 As for ‘couvre-chef’, I believe it is a term that is more literary than spoken. Also, there are many French Canadian expressions that are unheard of here!

      • Joanne Sisco · February 26, 2019

        hahaha! Yeah, we’ve discovered that!

  15. Steven Cramer · February 26, 2019

    Brilliant blog post! For me, the beret is the perfect accompaniment for any head! A hat that never goes out of style and yields looks from all fashionable and knowledgeable admirers…

    • MELewis · February 26, 2019

      Thank you, Steven. 😊 I’m going to have to dig my beret out of storage — or if I can’t find it, buy one!

  16. Pingback: Berets Without Irony – Taste of France

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