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?