By Tyler St. Mark
To fully appreciate “the hat facts” of Laurel and Hardy, one must comprehend the era they derived from and why hats were so important back then. Understand the sensibilities of those times and you will know why Stan and Babe (Hardy) wore so many different hats both on and off the screen, and why they chose derbies for their characters and not, let’s say, top hats or fedoras.
By the start of the twentieth century in America, hats not only identified one’s livelihood or career, they defined one’s status in life. Most every type of employment, from the milkman and doorman to the nurse and undertaker, was associated with a particular type of hat. Even one’s social and economic standing was suggested by their head covering; an inference often exploited in the theatre and “the flickers.” In these early films, you could not only tell the good guys from the bad guys by the hats they were wearing, you could distinguish the rich from the poor, and trades people from the “nobility.”
The bowler hat was invented in 1849 by London hat makers Thomas and William Bowler to fulfill a custom order placed by Lock and Co hatters who had been commissioned by Edward Coke, a nephew to the Earl of Derby, to design a close-fitting, low-crowned hat to protect his gamekeepers from tree branches while on horseback since the top hats they usually wore were constantly being knocked off and damaged.
The derby was mostly associated with urban society.
Peaking in popularity by the late 1800’s, this new English bowler offered a respectable compromise to both the formal top hat associated with the upper classes and the soft felt hats worn by the lower classes. By the new century, the “derby” (American slang for the hat popularized when the 12th Earl of Derby wore one to the Derby races) was mostly worn with suits and overcoats and actually symbolized male power dressing. However, it eventually became a relic of the Victorian age, gleefully cast off by the Roaring 1920’s for trendier headwear like the straw boater and Italian fedora.
According to Stan Laurel, the motive behind their wearing derbies was simple. The Boys perceived their characters essentially as “rubes;” dumb working class stiffs trying to get ahead and dressed for success—but looking twenty years behind the times. By that tine, the derby was mostly associated with urban society; particularly with well-to-do people who had risen from the working class but had yet to elevate their fashion sense.
So, according to Stan, it was a natural choice for “Stan and; Ollie” to sport derbies which, along with their winged collars, were considered dignified but conspicuously out of fashion. Stan felt that these vestiges of a bygone era, combined with his simple gray tweed suit and Babe’s classic navy suit or grey salt-and-pepper sports jacket, afforded the half-assed dignity he desired for their stupid but stately film personas.
Even before their true screen characters emerge; cast as vagrants in one of their first films together, Duck Soup (1927), Stan sports a battered derby while Babe is wearing a shabby and worn out top hat—perhaps their first attempt at seeking the slightly out-of-fashion stateliness which would become the wardrobe hallmark of their future screen personas.
Like Stan, I also had a fascination with hats from a very early age and, like both Laurel and Hardy, I was born of a generation whose sensibilities mandated that men and women were not properly dressed in public without wearing one. In fact, up until the late 50’s, a proper lady or gentleman would never be seen in public without a hat. Even children were expected to wear hats to certain public events and functions.
Stan the schoolboy.
Indeed, in many of Stan’s childhood photographs, he is wearing a hat or head covering. According to Stan’s daughter, Lois Laurel-Hawes, her great-grandmother had impressed upon Stan early on the importance of wearing a head covering if, for no other reason, during cold Lancashire weather, “the heat will escape from the top of your head!”
In Stan’s early music hall photographs, he is usually wearing a hat of one sort or another. While crossing to America with the Fred Karno troupe, Stan wore a common tweed flat cap, lightly indicative of both his youthful outlook and his working class status.
In Stan and Babe’s early candid photographs together, they are usually wearing hats and, in more film stills than not, Stan and Ollie are wearing hats. Throughout their lives and careers, hats seemingly played an essential part in both the public and private lives of The Boys.
Stan and his flatcap, 1920's.
In fact, you can just about gage Laurel and Hardy’s film success by the hats they display, from their snappy but thrifty straw skimmers or “boaters” before and during the early Roach years, to the more expensive Homburgs and Borsilonos they strut when their films are being widely celebrated across the continents.
Laurel and Hardy appeared together in about 106 films. They wore their trademark derbies in about 75 of those films. However, they donned more than 95 other types of hats in over 84 of their films. Yes, it’s true; foot for celluloid foot, Stan and Ollie truly wore many more other kinds of hats than they did their celebrated bowlers.
Sammy Benson, who worked as a wardrobe assistant at Hal Roach Studios before going over to MGM and 20th Century Fox, had a special affinity with Stan and his passion for hats. According to his daughter, Marjorie, Sammy and Stan would huddle with delight over the possibilities with each new script; eagerly seeking every opportunity to put The Boys, individual or collectively, in something other than their usual derbies. According to Sammy, however, this was no lark. It seems that Stan was concerned that audiences might tire of seeing the same wardrobe on The Boys, film after film, and so he actively sought to strategically invigorate their appearance whenever possible with the use of hats.
In addition to top hats, boaters, sailor hats, tam o shams, police hats, military hats, fire helmets, feathered hats, night caps, knit caps, sombreros, and the occasional ladies cloche hat and sequined fascinator, Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy also donned head gear as exotic as Russian busbies, silk turbans and, of course, their illustrious Turkish fezzes.
Stan and Babe wore over 95 other hats in their films.
Indeed, of all their supplementary film headwear, Stan and Babe are most celebrated for their simple hand-sewn, single chain-lock stitched, golden-rod thread embroidered fezzes imported from Istanbul. It is estimated that over eight dozen maroon colored fez blanks were obtained from several local fraternal order suppliers in the Fall of 1933, over-laid with a tissue paper tracing template bearing the somewhat crude image of a setting sun, and individually trace-stitched by several seamstresses working urgently on what were likely Cornely A industrial grade chain-stitch sewing machines. When even these efforts were proving too slow for the shooting schedule, the fezzes which were to be worn by scene extras in the distance were hastily imprinted with the design via a paint template.
A legend I cannot verify at this time was passed on to my Pop by a friend and colleague, William Lambert, who insisted the fez’s setting sun logo, now worn by members of the Sons of the Desert all over the world, was actually an unfinished sketch by costume designer, Irene Lenzt, known more simply in the fashion world as simply “Irene.”
According to Will, who also worked in the Hal Roach wardrobe department at the time, Irene was brought in to design some gowns for several films. Not yet famous herself, her late husband, F. Richard Jones, had once been Head of Production at Roach and revered by Stan who sought to keep her employed after his untimely death in 1930. Since Irene’s father had been a Shiner, she was asked to quickly whip up a logo for a fez to be worn by a fictitious fraternal order she misunderstood to be the “Sun of the Desert.”
The story goes that Irene began the logo sketch but was suddenly called onto the set of another film to address some wardrobe problems. The wardrobe supervisor, thinking the fez design was completed, immediately made a template from Irene’s sketch and had already stitched the design onto a dozen fezzes by the time Irene returned later that day. Will told my Pop that Irene only admitted many years later that the design rushed into production and now familiar worldwide to Laurel and Hardy fans, had never been finished. True or not, such production anomalies are not unusual during the hustle and bustle of meeting film schedules and, as Hal Roach would likely say, “It’s a better story!”
Produced as quickly (and cheaply) as possible for a few scenes of what would become one of Laurel and Hardy’s most celebrated films, Sons of the Desert (1933), nobody had any idea then that these hats would someday be among the most prized of Laurel and Hardy memorabilia. As I said before, back in those days, wardrobe was just wardrobe and, after production, nobody needed 100 fezzes bearing the same design along with the name of an only moderately successful Roach film short. So, those fezzes that were not retained as keepsakes by the cast, crew, and studio personnel were eventually sold off to local costume companies where they gathered dust, moth holes, and fell into obscurity. Some were altered or reconstructed for other projects while others were simply discarded. It has been estimated that there are less than a dozen original SOTD fezzes left today.
The Sons Of The Desert fez
However, as I also stated before, these precious relics seemingly have a mind of their own and there are enumerable stories of how present day owners found or acquired their original Sons of the Desert fezzes. My favorite account is from a film colleague who discovered one in the front window of a vintage clothing store in Los Angeles. Apparently, the fez was part of a local estate that had just arrived and the fez had not been sitting in the window for long. My friend rushed into the store, his heart beating fast, and purchased the hat for less than the price of a first run movie.
“I walked out of the store with my fez,” my friend says imitating a very satisfied Ollie, “and nobody was any the wiser!”
Another colleague reports a similar experience with not one but two original fezzes in a hat store in Burbank some years ago. The proprietor had no idea where they came from,” my friend explains emphatically, “and so we purchased both of them very cheaply.”
Other collectors, of course, have not been quite so fortunate, having paid as high as eight thousand dollars at auction for an authentic SOTD fez, with or without the original tassel.
Throughout his often turbulent film career of over fifty years, hats continued to play an affable if not comforting role in Stan Laurel’s life both on and off the silver screen. Stan wore hats everywhere; to the studio, to social engagements and sporting events, even while he was golfing, gardening or fishing. Stan prided himself on discovering some unique and interesting new head covering whenever and wherever he might venture. Once, returning from a brief excursion with friends to Mexico, Stan searched for and brought back the biggest sombrero he could find.
Stan’s daughter, Lois, recalls fondly that her father often performed hat tricks for her and her childhood friends. “He would roll his hat down his arm, catching it at the last second and, of course, he performed his famous hat trick against the back of the wall—just like in their films,” she remembers happily.
As I stated before, during their many tours and travels across the world, Stan and Babe spared no opportunity to display the indigenous headwear of the time--much to their public’s delight. According to Will Lambert, Stan personally preferred fedoras and, for a short time during the 40’s, took a particular fancy to a Stetson model known widely as The Stratoliner.
Stan and Babe wore fedoras later in life.
By the early 50’s, however, social norms and standards were beginning to relax and public tastes were changing both in comedy and in fashion. More and more, people were adopting a much more casual attitude about headwear in public and hats seemed destined to go the way of the derby.
Not Laurel and Hardy however. The Boys continued to exhibit various head gear on and off the screen and, in their very last film, Atoll K (1951), Stan and Ollie wore several other hats in addition to their trademark derbies.
Even when they returned to Hal Roach Studios for the last time in 1954 to see their old boss and to help dedicate Lake Laurel and Hardy, they were wearing their best fedoras.
However, when Babe Hardy passed away in 1957, so apparently did Stan’s passion for collecting hats. Stan never again publicly donned the trademark bowler that had come to be so profoundly associated with Laurel and Hardy. Some say it was out of respect for his late comedy partner. I believe it was more than that. I believe that their derbies were such an intrinsic part of their comedy pairing that Stan simply felt uncomfortable wearing one any longer.
Lois Laurel with one of her dad's hats.
Indeed, during his final years, living modestly but comfortably with his dutiful wife, Ida, at the Oceana in Santa Monica, Stan Laurel rarely left his apartment, whether for his customary early dinner at a nearby restaurant or for his monthly haircut, without wearing one of his fedoras—even while the Beat Generation was sporting trilbies and sport caps or going totally hatless altogether. Although fedoras were already fading into obsolescence like the top hat, derby, and straw boater, the former Clown Prince of Comedy remained ever faithful to bygone social etiquette, refusing to submit to rash 60’s sensibilities.
After all, Stan was born of a generation celebrated for wearing hats and was part of an era that defined its society by their headwear. He worked and reveled in an industry that used and abused hats to no end; and in the process, he made two of them, placed together, an international comedy hallmark.
Most importantly, he believed a gentleman should never be seen in public without his hat. And as their personal and professional histories show, and these hat facts clearly demonstrate, Laurel and Hardy were, above all else, forever and always, gentle men.
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*Tyler St. Mark is a writer/producer/actor in Los Angeles and presently in preproduction on the reprise of his 1974 landmark production now titled “Stan Laurel Backstage.” (http://www.stanlaurel.com)