People take their clothes very seriously. Ask any teenager trying to decide what to wear in the morning. We devote magazines to what to wear and more importantly what not wear. We make jokes about the fashion police. However, those involved in the Straw Hat Riots of 1922 took it to extremes.
There was a strict tradition among men at the end of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th century about what was appropriate for the various seasons. Because of the lack of air conditioning and central heating, men’s wear changed over to lighter fabrics in the summer and heavier fabrics in the winter. Seersucker suits were popular because of their light, breathable nature. This tradition can be seen in the “Searsucker Thursdays” that are still popular in the US Senate. Hats were no exception. No gentleman was fully dressed without a hat. Until the exact date of May 15, a gentleman wore a felt hat. On that date, he could switch to the lighter straw hat acceptably. Then on September 15th, a gentlemen resumed his wearing of a felt hat. This was so ingrained, September 15 was dubbed “Felt Hat Day”. Newspapers ran ads warning readers of the impending deadline. The New York Times said anyone who wore a straw hat after September 15 “may even be a Bolshevik, a communal enemy, a potential subverter of the social order.” They were only half kidding.
If you dared to wear a straw hat after this Felt Hat Day, your headgear was fair game to any street urchin to grab off your head and stomp to smithereens. Sometimes these snatchings got violent, as described in an article in the Pittsburgh Press from September 15, 1910 where police had to intervene. They go on to say, “It is all right for stock brokers on the exchanges to destroy one another’s hats if they like, on the principle that everything goes among friends. But no man likes to have his hat snatched from his head by somebody he has not yet been introduced to.” They weren’t kidding.
It was September 13, 1922 and Felt Hat Day was approaching. Men were still wearing boaters safely with two days left until the deadline. However, some kids in the Mulberry Bend section of Manhattan decided to start early. They started swiping straw hats and stomping them although the men were within the window of acceptable straw hat wearing. The targeted some of the men working on the docks, who were not going to sit idly by while some punks grabbed their hats. The dockworkers fought back and it lead to brawling on the streets. Soon gangs of straw hat hating gangs were roaming the city armed with nail studded clubs. The New York Times reported, “[Scores] of rowdies on the east side and in other parts of the city started smashing hats. Police reserves were called out, straw hat bonfires were started, and seven men were convicted of disorderly conduct in the Men’s Night Court.”
The riots lasted for three days and moved from the East Side to the Upper West Side. Police went out with orders to nap the hat hunting gangs. They brought in boys to station houses by the bucket full. One police lieutenant “invited the boys’ fathers to come to the station and spank them.” Eventually the furor died down, but every year since there was more hat related violence around September 15. In 1924, one man was killed defending his hat. President Coolidge was shown wearing a straw hat on September 18, and it was so scandalous it made the front page. I doubt the Secret Service allowed anyone to take his hat though. All of this hat related violence died down once the country plunged into the Great Depression as we all had more important things to worry about.