Cat with a hat.
Dear Word Detective: I have two questions for you to answer. One, what the heck is a “fedora,” and two, where does it come from? Also (yes, I know that this is more than two) how do you take one off? Is it like a hat? — Aife N.
Well, to answer your, ahem, fourth question first, yes, it’s like a hat. In fact, a “fedora” is a type of hat, usually worn by men, made of soft felt and having a center crease in the crown and a wide brim. I suspect that your interest in “fedora” may have been piqued by the recent release of the mega-ballyhooed fourth installment in the Indiana Jones adventure series, in all episodes of which Harrison Ford wears a fedora. Personally, I’ll always associate fedoras with Humphrey Bogart playing Sam Spade (or Rick in “Casablanca”). It’s funny you should ask about how to take one off, because there actually is an approved protocol for removing a fedora. It should be grasped by the top of the crown, never by its brim, and lifted gently off the noggin.
I noted above that fedoras are “usually worn by men,” but while the style has long been a symbol of rugged sophistication when worn by men in movies, the original fedora was, in fact, worn by a woman.
“Fedora” is actually the name of a play by the French dramatist Victorien Sardou (1831-1908) that premiered in 1882, written expressly for and starring the legendary Sarah Bernhardt. In the play Bernhardt portrayed Fedora Romanoff, a Russian princess, and wore a hat resembling the modern fedora. The name “Fedora” itself is the feminine form of the Russian “Fedor,” related to the Greek “Theodoros,” meaning “gift of god” (and from which we derive the familiar “Theodore”).
In the early 1920s, the fashion for the “fedora” took off (although primarily among men, not women), and the fedora became the most popular hat style in Europe and North America throughout the first half of the 20th century. When styles changed in the early 1960s and many men quit wearing hats as part of their business attire, the fedora went into eclipse. Indiana Jones notwithstanding, the fedora is probably fated to remain the fusty province of traditionalists in a world dominated by the ubiquitous baseball cap.
Interestingly, the fedora is not the only hat to be launched into fame from the theatrical stage. One of the most popular novels of the late 19th century was George du Maurier’s “Trilby,” the eponymous tale of an gullible Irish lass living in Paris who falls under the spell of a mysterious and hypnotic older man who makes her a star but eventually steals her soul and seals her doom. The popularity of the book made the name of Trilby’s sinister master, Svengali, synonymous with evil manipulation. But when “Trilby” was mounted as a play in London, the audience noticed that one character was wearing a snazzy hat with a narrow brim, a sort of compact fedora, and the style immediately became known as a “trilby.” Trilbys have been popular ever since (Kojak wore one on TV), and today are regarded as hip headgear by a variety of musicians and actors, including Johnny Depp.