Hats have gone through several transformations throughout history. The pork pie hat, so-called because of its looks, became famous with both men and women in the mid-19th century and has remained a timeless classic ever since.
With its creased, rounded crown and narrow brim, these hats are also known as the “stingy brim”— thanks to its brevity that made them “pork pies.”
Read further to learn more about the origin of Pork Pie hats.
History of the Pork Pie Hat
The Origin of Pork Pie
The name Pork pie originates from the shape and crease of the crown, which resembled the Melton Mowbray pork pie, a popular pastry made around the 1760s in Leicestershire, when local bakers plied fox hunters who were searching for a fast-food remedy while on the hoof with this delicious pie, the top of which was neatly creased to avoid leakage.
1830-1865: Small Beginnings
The first pork pie hat was worn mainly by American and British women from about 1830 to around 1865 during the American Civil War. It has a low, flat crown with a crease running along the inside of the top edge, and a narrow, curled-up brim of the same width around the hat.
These hats were made of cotton canvas coated with silk, felt and straw, and usually had feathers attached to a bow or dangling ribbons on the side where the crown joined the brim. Back then, women wore tiny pork pie hats to add an extra touch to their coiffures.
The British man-about-town then picked up the pork pie hat style and appeared in Britain as a men’s hat in the late 1880s, which gradually fell out of fashion.
1920s: Buster Keaton
In the 1920s, the pork pie hat’s fame was revived in the United States. Thanks to a silent movie actor named Buster Keaton, who wore these hats in most of his films. He turned fedoras and many other styles into pork pie hats, making over a thousand of them in his lifetime. This silent actor preferred Stetsons over other brands because they were cheaper and easily offered to cinema gods during Keaton’s daring onscreen stunts back then.
It is also said that Americans brought the pork pie popularity back to the U.S. after they saw it being worn by Englishmen and women in tennis matches. After that, pork pie hats were seen all over the place, including polo matches and schools. In this period, the pork pie hats had a relatively smooth top and very short flat brim and were both fashioned in the United States and Britain.
1930s-1940s: Revolutionized Pork Pie Hats
The peak of the pork pie hat occurred during the Great Depression, where it regained its narrow or snap brim, but has somewhat increased its height. The hat’s dished crown, known as the “telescopic crown” (or the “tight telescope”), became popular among milliners as it causes the top of the hat to appear slightly when worn.
During the 1940s, the African-American culture rocked a different pork pie hat style— flashy, feathered, and color-coordinated. These hats became associated with the zoot suit— high-waisted, tight-cuffed, and wide trousers with a large coat and padded shoulders to be worn by men. Surprisingly, in 1944, pork pies also began to steal the spotlight in different countries like New Guinea.
Among the famous artists who wore pork pie hats during this period was Frank Lloyd Wright, an American architect who believed in organic architecture. Wright usually wore a wide-brimmed pork pie with a tall crown. Another famous wearer is Lester Young, a jazz saxophonist during the mid-1920s until the late 1950s, who always wore a pork pie hat throughout his performances. His hat had a wider brim than the previous pork pie hat styles but maintained the classic circular, flat, creased crown.
1950s-1960s: African-American Culture
Although the pork pie hat’s widespread popularity faded after World War II, it was still worn mainly as it was considered part of the zoot suit, which was related to the African American music scenes like jazz, blues, and more.
Following the death of jazz saxophonist Lester Young, the musician named Charles Mingus wrote an elegy for him entitled “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.”
Around 1951 and 1955, the pork pie was viewed on television as celebrity Art Carney often wore the hat as he played the role of Ed Norton in an American sitcom The Honeymooners. Another actor in Puerto Rico named Joaquín Monserrat (A.k.a Pacheco), who hosted many children’s TV shows in the 1950s, was recognized for his pork pie hat made of straw as well as his bow tie. That was when the pork pie went back to its Buster Keaton hat style with an extremely flat brim and crown.
This hat was also associated with the “rude boy” subculture in Jamaica in the 1960s. It then gained fame in Britain once again, influencing the mod and rave subculture. One of the most popular wearers during that era was Yogi Bear, a cartoon character.
1970s onwards: Pork Pie Hats In Films
After the 1960s, the pork pie hat became Gene Hackman’s signature look in his role as Popeye Doyle in the film The French Connection (1971). The movie was based on a real-life story of Eddie Egan, an American detective who was known for wearing a pork pie for all his life. He declined to give his hat to Hackman to use in the film, so the producers had to procure a similar hat elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Robert De Niro in 1973 wore a pork pie hat in his film entitled Mean Streets. It was the exact same hat he used during the audition for the film’s role. Sailors still wear one kind of pork pie hat in the U.S and the U.K. as a part of the uniform.
In the 20th and 21st century, wearing pork pie hats is associated with the 1930s and 1940s vibe, making it part of the hipster fashion— someone you may see in a club (jazz and blues) or a pool hall, or someone with a goatee or a toothpick, wearing a leather jacket and pointy shoes. It is also recognized as Tom Waits or Johnny Thunder type of hat. Compared to a fedora, pork pie hats usually have worn-up, narrower brims and a flat top with a round indent.
As vintage hats, the pork pie is relishing a comeback at the moment when celebrities, including Justin Timberlake, Sean Combs and Brad Pitt wore them, as well as Bryan Cranston, who played a role as Walter White’s alter ego called ‘Heisenberg’ in the TV series Breaking Bad.