Clothing cue. 1. A highly expressive consumer product worn as a covering for the head. 2. Distinctively styled head garb with varied markings, colors, shapes, and fit, designed to communicate a wearer's identity, gender, occupation, mood, and favorite sport.
Usage: Because of their prominence and proximity to the face, hats make impressive statements about our social status, affiliation, and personality (see HAIR CUE). Indeed, whatever we place atop our 15-pound heads--which loom conspicuously above our upright bodies for all to see--will be interpreted as nonverbal signs.
Observation. In hat stores, shoppers may unwittingly reflect the power of head wear. After an uneasy smile, e.g., hats which fit the head but not the persona are hastily removed. A proper hat, on the other hand, stays put and rides out of the store atop the owner's head. Self-conscious thoughts that "everyone is noticing" soon fade (i.e., become old hat) as the wearer assimilates his or her "new personality."
Anthropology. According to University of Illinois archaeologist, Olga Soffer, the earliest-known headwear may be represented by a woven cap worn by an Upper Paleolithic figurine (the Venus of Willendorf) from Austria (Wong 2000). Venus figurines date back to ca. 27,000 years ago. (N.B.: Others have interpreted the impressions on Venus's head as coifed hair.)
Cap I. For men, wearing a baseball cap says: "I belong to a team." Although caps display the emblems of professional ball clubs, in a deeper sense the group they most accurately refer to is the generic association of men. Unlike women's hats which are designed to show individuality, men's hats are part of a uniform to show membership on a team (thus explaining the standardized design of turbans, fedoras, fezzes, and military caps).
Cap II. Wearing a baseball cap (the biggest selling U.S. hat) helps a man feel "stronger." On the isopraxic principle of "same behavior" (see REPTILIAN BRAIN), cap wearers draw strength a. from nonverbal bonds to fellow cap-wearers, and b. from the psychic power of male bonding in team sports. There is no better sign for judging a man's unspoken allegiances with other men than through the messaging features of his cap.
Cap III. The startling coloration of some sports caps not only makes them more noticeable than our hair alone, but carries a hidden warning message as well. Conspicuous blotches and bright flashes of color resemble the markings of dangerous animals, e.g., of bees, hornets, and poisonous snakes. Bold stripes and jolting patterns of black, white, yellow, red, and orange (which in the animal kingdom are aposematic warning messages aimed at predators) are as common in sports caps as in, e.g., skunks, tigers, and poison-arrow frogs. The markings seem to say, "Don't tread on me; I am toxic, noxious, and bad."
Brim. A hat brim suggests masculine "fierceness" by visually enlarging a man's bony brow ridges (which are natural signs of strength in the male skull, though less prominent now than in Neanderthal times). Drawn down on the forehead, brims mimic eyebrows lowered in anger (as caricatured, e.g., by the cartoon character, "Yosemite Sam"; see FROWN). With its turned-down brim, the fedora worn by Humphrey Bogart made him look "meaner," while its vertically ascending crown increased his standing height. (N.B.: Because a baseball cap lacks the fedora's vertical stature, some men reshape the rounded crown to produce a jaunty vertical riser in front; see HIGH-STAND DISPLAY. Young American men are self-conscious about the appearance of their cap's brim shape, and strive for an insouciant curvilinear, rather than a senior's flattened [i.e., unmodified], "stock" appearance.)
Media. Hats have become a form of mass media. "'In the last seven years or so, licensed [sports] products as a whole started taking off and baseball caps became a fashion statement,' explains Ron Meshil, chief operating officer of Manny's Baseball Land, a sports merchandise store in Palm City, Fla" (Oldenburg 1995:D5).
Style. A woman's hat, which shows style, individuality, and presence, can also suggest power and strength. Cowboy hats and fedoras, among the best selling headware for women in the U.S., reflect allegiance to predominantly male "teams." Alternatively, Floppy berets and Garbo slouch hats frame the face like soft-falling tresses of hair, to seem more appealing, approachable, and feminine. (N.B.: Few men wear feminine hats. A woman has more freedom about her head's say-so in Nonverbal World.)
Neuro-notes. We respond to hat cues, as we respond to natural cues of the face, a. via paleocircuits linked to the amygdala; and b. through modules of the primate brain's inferior temporal lobe, which respond to specific facial expressions. The amygdala mediates our response to fearful facial cues. The scarier the face (or the hat) the more activity registers in the left amygdala (Suplee 1996), which alerts the hypothalamus to mobilize the body for danger. (N.B.: The facial "fear response" also has been observed in rhesus monkeys. Even when reared in isolation from birth, young monkeys respond appropriately to threatening faces with a fear grin [Sackett 1973].)
Photo of men in turbans; note the regional stylistic flair of a dorsal "twist" (a classic case of isopraxism [see ISOPRAXISM elsewhere in The Nonverbal Dictionary]; picture credit: unknown)