Thursday, December 9, 2010

Hats and Literature: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens


Illustration by "Phiz" from the 1950 Modern Library Edition of David Copperfield. Top Hats were de rigour in 19th Century England.

Readers of the HAT BLOG and other Information and Resources pages at [see the top navigation bar] know that headwear’s role, as symbol and metaphor, in art and literature is vast, stretching back to the beginning of humankind. One finds never-ending examples of hats being used to convey nuanced – or not so nuanced – ideas. Here are a few examples plucked from my latest read, Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield.

Mr. Dick is a masterfully wrought character. The only comparable example in fiction that comes to mind is Chauncey Gardiner portrayed by Peter Sellers in the movie Being There. Dickens: "This veneration Mr. Dick extended to the Doctor, whom he thought the most subtle and accomplished philosopher of any age. It was long before Mr. Dick ever spoke to him otherwise than bareheaded; and even when he and the Doctor had struck up quite a friendship, and would walk together by the hour, on that side of the courtyard which was known as the Doctor’s Walk, Mr. Dick would pull off his hat at intervals to show his respect for wisdom and knowledge."

David Copperfield was madly in love with Dora. He was obsessed with everything associated with her. Copperfield: "I never saw such curls – how could I, for there never were such curls! – as those she shook out to hide her blushes. As to the straw hat and blue ribbons which was on the top of the curls, if I could only have hung it up in my room in Buckingham Street, what a priceless possession it would have been!" He references Dora’s hat and her curls again on the pages that follow. I do agree that the relationship of a women’s hat and her hair can be very attractive. As a hat merchant, and someone who has been asked his opinion on matters of this kind hundreds of times, I have often stated words to the effect, and to many a woman, "I like the way that hat works with your hair." Women in hats were alluring in Dicken’s day, and for many men, they still are.

In a most dramatic passage, Mr. Peggotty decides to commit his life to finding his niece who ran off with David’s friend, "I’m a-going to seek her, fur and wide." As he finishes a poignant soliloquy and is ready to depart, this description follows: "He said this solemnly, bareheaded; then putting on his hat, he went down the stairs and away." That simple act of putting on a hat and leaving had a kind of literary power in the 19th Century, you see it in pre-1960 films as well, but is virtually gone in this day and age. [Note the slightly different uses of bareheadedness in the Mr. Dick passage and in this one. Mr. Dick refrained from wearing a hat as deference to power, much the same as a king’s subject would remove his hat in the company of the king. Mr. Peggotty’s deference was to the solemnity of his discourse and implied an oath (to a power even greater than a king).]

The book is full of references to hats. Here’s my last example, a slight variation of a metaphor that is in my collection of Hat Metaphors and Similes. Mrs. Crupp, Davids’ landlady in London, is eccentric, nutty in fact. One of her paranoid preoccupations is her "… constitutional objection to spies, intruders, and informers. She named no names, she said—let them the cap fitted wear it . . ."

Sleuthing for hats in literature is quite simple; references are easy to find. Social status, religious observance, challenge to the enemy, temperament, emotion, financial means, geographic identity, historical period, hobbies and interests, and much more is illuminated by the use of hats. As R. Turner Wilcox in her forward to the classic The Mode in Hats and Headdress writes, "No part of costume is so universally important as the headdress, which is worn even when body garments are dispensed with, as the appearance of the aborigines abundantly proves." With the force of expression that hats intrinsically carry, it is no wonder why artists and writers use them copiously.

Fred Belinsky

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