Nationally, the 1950s represented huge changes for America: The hot war of WWII became the pervasive fear of the Cold War; Cars saw an upswing, and even the average American could own what was once a luxury; The National Highway made the country accessible coast to coast; The Civil Rights Movement made big steps forward with the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954; And President Dwight D Eisenhower took presidential office—and opted not to wear a top hat.
Today that seems like such an insignificant thing because people rarely wear hats at all, unless it is to keep our ears warm in winter. But, in the 50s, there were still strict rules regarding hat fashion that the nation followed. Men wore hats whenever they went outdoors, and removed them when they entered private buildings, churches or a restaurant where they would be seated. Women would choose hats to match their outfits, as well as the season, and while they were expected to wear them outdoors, they were not required to remove them inside buildings.
President Kennedy is often accused of killing the hat industry, as he was rarely seen wearing a hat during his presidency (though his wife Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat has become a historical icon), but the downturn of the hat industry might have first been evident with Eisenhower’s casual hat choice in his 1953 inauguration.
Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe might be the most famous of presidential top hats, but actually, up until Eisenhower’s inauguration in 1953, it was customary for all presidents to wear top hats on inauguration day. President Franklin Pierce began the tradition when he wore a top hat to his inauguration in 1853 and it continued unbroken for 100 years. FDR waved his top hat at cheering crowds as he and Eleanor Roosevelt were driven to his inauguration in 1933, and then wore the style for his inaugurations in 1937 and 1941. Spiffy dresser President Harry S. Truman, who once owned a men's haberdashery in Kansas City, honored tradition with top hat and formal morning dress for his 1949 inauguration.
However, when it was Eisenhower's turn to be sworn into office in 1953, the former general let it be known that he would wear a Homburg - the dressy hat choice of the common man. This caused a fashion tiff between Eisenhower and Truman, who would ride to the inaugural with his successor. Truman thought Eisenhower's business hat an inappropriate break with precedent, but said publicly that he wasn't going to get in an argument about it. Tradition stated that the President-elect set the fashion choice, and so Truman wore a homburg, too.
Eisenhower’s choice raised eyebrows across the nation. It was reported in the papers with headings such as: “He didn't Wear a Top Hat!” Other papers praised his decision. The headline in the Daily Union read “He Made the Right Choice.” After all, Eisenhower was the working man’s president, so of course he would wear the working man’s hat. Either way, Eisenhower began the transition away from the old customs. By the end of the 1960s, hat customs would fade away and the strict rules that came with wearing hats would be forgotten.
But Eisenhower couldn't avoid the top hat forever. His own successor John F. Kennedy opted to don the traditional top hat for his 1960 inauguration, and so—just as Truman did for him—Eisenhower respected Kennedy’s decision and sported the black top hat. But the top hat took a downturn after that, and President Nixon was the last president to wear a top hat, or a hat of any kind, to his inauguration in 1973.