Published on May 21st, 2015 | by Kate Albert Ward


Reviving forgotten Tacoma traditions: Straw Hat Day

Originally published May 2012

It is commonly known (and commonly rejected) that according to the rules of fashion etiquette, white shoes are only appropriate attire between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

A more oft forgotten summer-time rule is that men should doff their felt hats in exchange for cooler straw hats come the end of May.

This rule is no longer fretted over because hats have not been an ubiquitous staple of the male wardrobe for half a century. The shift happened in the 1960s, when John F. Kennedy, nicknamed “Hatless Jack,” was President. Kennedy’s refusal to wear a hat because he thought it made him look old was one of many factors that contributed to the hat’s demise as everyday wear.

In the first half of the 20th century, hats and the rules associated with their proper wear were a much bigger deal. In fact, there was even a celebration that took place most often in mid-May to mark the transition from winter to summer hats called Straw Hat Day. Heavily promoted by merchandisers, citizens often marked Straw Hat Day by purchasing a new hat to be worn to baseball game, festival, party, or parade. Although there are small pockets across the country (and the internet) that still commemorate a version of these traditional festivities, it has largely been forgotten.

Today, we in the Northwest enthusiastically celebrate the return of the sun–what is all too often only an imaginary change in temperature–with the premature donning of shorts and flip flops.

Seasonal enthusiasm must be regionally hereditary as Tacomans used to participate in Straw Hat Day with same level of class and eager fervor.

Exhibits A through C:

Image from the Tacoma Public Library Image Archives.

This image from 1925, found in the Tacoma Public Library Image Archives, shows a parade float that was likely a part of a Straw Hat Day celebration.

Parked in front of the downtown Elks Lodge, the straw-covered truck, with a large straw hat jauntily affixed, provided a moving stage for a Dixieland band. The float promotes a silent film with a banner that reads “Park your new straw hat under a seat at the Colonial and see ‘A Kiss in the Dark.’” The Colonial Theater was located on Broadway next to the Pythian Temple (the subject of a future story, I hope) until it was torn down in 1988.

The Straw Hat Day parade allowed men and women to show off their new hats, as well as let loose and dress up in costumes.

Image from the Tacoma Public Library Image Archives.

According to a 1926 article in the Tacoma News Tribune, these bathing beauties, Mildred Stiles and Viola Barth, are ushering in Straw Hat Day by dancing the Charleston to the “Straw Hat Blues.”

Their stage is a super-sized straw hat placed in front of the Tacoma totem pole, located in what is now Fireman’s Park. While perhaps proper for the beach, the knit bathing suits and rolled up stockings worn by these ladies seem rather indecorous for a fête for fashion etiquette. Then again, there have always been those who love to have a good time even if they don’t care about the cause.The year this picture was taken, the Straw Hat Day parade was cancelled because of heavy rains, but it doesn’t seem to have put a damper on the spirits of these two.

Image from the Tacoma Public Library Image Archives.

In this photograph from 1937, sixteen-month-old Richard Allyn Miles models a dapper straw hat and a cloth diaper, a prescient eco-fashion statement I’m sure (Little Dickie wore cloth diapers before cloth diapers were cool, and it wasn’t just because disposable diapers hadn’t been invented yet).

To complete his outfit, Dickie chose a “sailor,” also known as a “skimmer” in order to ring in the new season in style. Dickie was in-line with local trends as men’s clothing stores advertised “skimmers” and “panamas” in 1937 in the days leading up to Straw Hat Day.

In recent years, a nostalgia for styles of yesteryear have caused hats – fedoras, cadet caps, bowlers, berets, and the like – to resurge among the populace. Despite this revival, Straw Hat Day remains relegated to obscurity.

By no means am I proposing that we resuscitate rules that dictate when we can wear which hats (though “warm hats for cool weather and cool hats for warm weather” does have a nice simple logic to it), but I appreciate the opportunity that Straw Hat Day afforded for a concentrated display of collective optimism about the coming warm sunny season.

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About the Author

A writer for Post Defiance, Kate has done freelance writing for the Museum of Glass, The South Sound User's Guide, and 19th-Century European Paintings at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. Kate’s previous experience includes working as the Kress Foundation Interpretive Fellow at the Portland Art Museum, and as an Adjunct Assistant Professor for Portland State University. Kate currently works at Hilltop Artists, a youth development program that uses glass arts to connect young people from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds to better futures.

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