The Proper Topper

When Restaurant Gal Daughter and Son were learning to drive, their grandmother–Mr. Restaurant Gal’s mother–counseled them with this advice:

“Beware of old men wearing hats.”

This surprised me. Our Nana grew up in the era when all men wore hats–old men, young men, every man. You know the hat, at least from the vintage clothing stores and old-style black-and-white movies–felt fedora hats with a pinch pleat front, 2-inch brim, 2-inch ribbon band.

They were so cool. These hats.

I don’t know if all hat-wearing old men equate to bad drivers, but I do know this: Old-school manners were exhibited along with this fashionable felt accessory, and they–the hats and the manners–are a marvel to behold if you are fortunate enough to see authentic ones being modeled by gentlemen of that era.

These were the days–pre-1965–when gentlemen always wore hats in public–a million generations apart from today’s baseball caps. Men removed these hats upon entering any establishment, they touched the brims to greet one another, they quickly removed and replaced them to greet the ladies.

Propriety, comportment and gentility fairly oozed from the soft fabric that adorned these gentlemen. Think Cary Grant; hell, think Ricky Ricardo and Fred Mertz! When men wore those hats, they were spot on, regardless of circumstance, social class, or anything else.

The hat made the man the man.

Such a gentleman dined with us this past Saturday. As I checked his coat, his son asked if I could also check his father’s hat. His father was reluctant. I reassured him I would be careful with it. I purposely placed his hat on a shelf at the podium, determined that it would not be left behind, and that it most definitely would not get squashed amongst the fur jackets, designer top coats, and all else hung up with a plastic tag attached to a hanger.

I reminded our evening host at least a half dozen times, “We have to be careful with that hat.”

The gentleman had a tough time choosing his seat at his table, seemingly confused. He awkwardly chose one, seated himself sideways, and wondered what to do next. “Dad, just sit at the table,” his son chuckled, smiling at me, “Is this how it’s going to be on the cruise?”

This Dad, however, proved to be a true gentleman. Was it the way he said please and thank you? Actually, it was the way he said everything with a hint of natural elegance that resounded with an upbringing that had nothing to do with money or power or position.

His refinement provided the perfect contrast to the nearby group of far younger, spoiled, self-entitled patrons who were obviously raised without ever hearing the term “No” from their nannies, babysitters, either parent, or anyone else, with the possible exception of a third grade teacher who then got in trouble with the principal when the parents took the issue above her head and all the way to the school board.

His deference provided the perfect contrast to another group who thought it perfectly acceptable to hiss the phrases: “Have you ever heard of just saying yes?” and “What don’t you get about this?” to us abiding servants.

This gentleman was, simply, the perfect gentleman.

These men are a dying breed. Literally. They are in their 80s and 90s and older. They have likely misplaced most of their prized hats. But, with luck, they still own one. Maybe even their best one.

My gentleman got his back, unscathed.

And for just one second, I wondered what power it might wield if he lent it to one of the younger and obviously very wealthy patrons for whom manners were clearly left unlearned. What if he left his hat for me to use whenever a guest between the ages of 25 and 65 proved to be a bore, an ogre–okay, a pain in the ass.

But no, I couldn’t ask such a huge favor. The hat could be lost, or worse, wasted on the young.

But, to you sir, I tip my hat.






15 responses to “The Proper Topper”

  1. Burt Kaufman Avatar
    Burt Kaufman

    There are a few of us that still wear one, and there are a few hatshops that make them, in the old-fashioned style, fur felt, open crown and all. (You have to shape it yourself!) The Federation Deluxe, pictured on this page is just such a hat, but mostly gets sold to admirers of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones,. Still a nice hat!

    You have to pay Australian dollars, and it is made from rabbit fur which was not the way of things, once upon a time, but I’m glad they get some use out of rabbits.

  2. Burt Kaufman Avatar
    Burt Kaufman

    I suspect that, in her wisdom, she harbored a deep distrust, of old men wearing hats because in her experience they were prone to tush pinching – And are still!

  3. Aaron DeLay Avatar

    That is a great story. I’ve learned in my short little life that it is best to follow the example given by men like these then to follow the petulant behavior of an over privileged and spoiled child.

    If I worked where you did I might hit all those little hooligans in the back of the head…:)

    As for tush pinching…that makes me laugh cause I know old men like that. I used to work as a volunteer at a Nursing Home. There were some guys there that were the playboys. Always talking to the ladies at dinner. They had that gleam in their eye and even a little bit of a strut when they could.

  4. Junior Avatar

    I wear one of those hats.. I’m 26.. I would like to think I’m like them also..
    but I’m probably dreaming.. that confidence comes from that lifetime…

  5. Benjamin Wolfe Avatar
    Benjamin Wolfe

    And some of us wish we could wear those hats.

  6. Julie Avatar

    When we were cleaning out my grandfather’s things after he passed, I found his “Sunday hat” — the one he wore for special occasions. It’s the only thing I have of his, but everytime I put it on, I can remember just how wonderful and special he was.

  7. Phil Avatar

    The kangol makes the man.

  8. Natalie Avatar

    Man, I wish for those hats to be back in style. Can you think of anything more dashing looking than a man in a nice hat? Maybe men could be real gentlemen and women could start acting like ladies again.

  9. Nana Avatar

    My father and grandfather always wore hats…and their hatmaker always gave Cissie and me each a little wooden hat at Hanukkah. It was sitting on a shelf and I just gave my grandson his great-great grandfather’s pop-up top hat. Guess he’ll wear it for dress-up…ah, well.

  10. LB Avatar

    It always saddens me that manners seem to have gone so out of style. If only we young’ns here in America were more respectful to our elders, we might learn a little more from them. I am proud to say that I was raised with good manners and I’m hoping that I can help bring them back to popularity

  11. wavo Avatar

    What an absolutely perfect story…my feelings exactly. I so wish this was back in style and I’d love to wear one myself. Reminds me of my grandfather. I’m only 29 and I agree with Natalie, I’d love to see men be gentlemen and women be ladies…sigh.

  12. Lana Wood Avatar


    I have been reading your blog for awhile, linked from Waiter Rant.

    I am glad you and the chef came to an understanding. From what you have written it seems like you truly enjoy working with people, and have an innate knack for it to boot. The ability to help people plan events and have them be happy in the end is a rare and valuable talent.

    I love little old men in hats. Whenever I see I nice little old man I tell my friends I want to find somebody to marry who will be a cute little old guy like that when we are older. Manners are not extinct though. I have them, my parents instilled their importance in my and all my siblings. I also notice them, or their absence, in others. You’ve heard, I’m sure, the old adage about paying attention to how a date treats the waitress as that is how he will treat you in six months.

    It seems you are correct about the rarity of things like please and thank you. Many people I come into contact with each day seem to register genuine shock and pleasure when I say outlandish things like hello, please, thank you, and have a nice day. I think a lot of people never bother to genuinely say hello to the people who make their coffee, sell their paper, ring out their groceries, or make their lunch. Too bad. Everybody deserves a nice hello.

    P.S. It sounds like you have nice kids from your stories.

  13. Duckie Avatar

    Thanks for the awesome story. After watching the news and just plain seeing people around us, it’s hard to see the genuine people out there. It’s nice to have them brought into the light, and to let them know that we appreciate them. thanks again!

  14. question girl Avatar

    OMG – my family has a VERY SIMILAR saying – your story made me chuckle and reminded me of the great laughs we had with it

  15. Retro Fashion Avatar

    All the old stuff I wore as a child is coming back. Kinda scary and makes you feel old, but it looks great most of the time.