Saturday, May 20, 2017

"Peak Hats." Social Change and the Coming Demise of Private Cars

For a long time, hats were oversized and expensive status symbols more than tools for protecting people's heads. During the past half century or so, they have nearly disappeared. A similar destiny may befall on private cars, also oversized and expensive status symbols rather than tools for transporting people. With the disappearance of cars, we may see hats coming back. 

If you look at images of people taken before mid 20th century, you'll notice that almost everybody was wearing hats. In those times, people would often wear top hats or bowler hats but, by the 20th century, people started wearing the ubiquitous Fedora hat as you can see in any gangster movie set in the 1920s and 1930s.

But, today, almost nobody wears hats and Fedora-wearing gangsters seem to have disappeared everywhere. The trend is confirmed by a search on Google Ngrams. Here is, for instance, the result for "Fedora hat". You could call what we see here as "peak Fedora" in analogy with the concept of "peak oil"

Searches for other types of hat confirm that we see a relatively recent phenomenon taking place during the second half of the 20th century. For instance, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the last US president to wear a top hat at the inauguration ceremony, in 1961, just as Abraham Lincoln had done, long before. Afterward, hats disappeared from the heads of US presidents, just as of most ordinary people.

So what happened that caused the near disappearance of a clothing item that had been commonplace all over human history? Surely, fashion changes all the time but it is not always just a question of whim. There are often practical reasons: think of the uncomfortable corsets that disappeared in the 1920s, when women became more active in everyday life and needed more practical ways of dressing.

For hats, the story may have been different. A top hat may be a little clumsy to wear but surely it doesn't have the same practical problems of a corset. So, the decline of all kinds of hats probably comes from a different factor: the importance of hats as status symbols.

All over human history, hats have been used to separate the upper classes from the lower ones. In the Western World, it would have been unthinkable for workers or peasants to wear top hats, just as the upper class wouldn't even dream of wearing berets. Wearing or not wearing a certain type of hat was a choice determined by one's social status. So, it is in social factors that we can probably find the explanation for the demise of hats.

The 20th century saw a strong trend toward higher social equality in the Western World, at least for a while. Here are the data for the Gini coefficient for people's incomes (a parameter proportional to economic inequality)

As you see, there occurred something that we could call "peak equality" in the 1960s-1970s. This peak corresponds well to the disappearance of hats. It makes sense: in a society where wealth is reasonably well distributed, excessive display of one's status may be seen as poor taste. Many societies and ideologies that theorize equality have emphasized the concept that everybody, rich or poor, should wear the same kind of hat: think of the clothing that the Chinese wore at the time of the cultural revolution. Then, if everyone wears, say, the Fedora hat, what's the point of wearing it at all? You may as well leave it home. This is probably the main factor that made hats mostly obsolete in the Western World.

But things may be subtler than this. Although in the early 20th century social inequality had become less evident, it still existed. And people are natural hierarchical animals; they need to establish hierarchies. There lies the problem: hats were good status symbols as long as social mobility was low and people were born with a certain social status. In those times, a worker might have been able to afford a top hat, if he really wanted, but wearing it in public would have been unthinkable for him. But, in the 20th century, people had become socially mobile and also geographically mobile while, at the same time, monetary wealth rapidly became the main marker of social status. So, if you saw someone wearing a top hat, was he really rich or was he a cheater? It was hard to say. What was needed was a more robust social marker; something expensive enough that would provide a direct and reliable indication of a person's wealth. And it was found in the 1950s: the private car.

The private car had what was needed to be an excellent status symbol in the new social and economic structure. The shift to suburban life made private cars not anymore a luxury but a necessity. Then, cars were expensive enough that people had to commit a substantial fraction of their budget to buy one. And the industry soon provided a range of models with a price spread that selected buyers according to their financial status. Add to that the clever marketing idea of the "model of the year" and soon buying a car became the way to keep up with the Joneses. It would strain to the budget of suburbanites enough to provide an immediate and reliable signal of what was the income of the owner of a certain model of car.

Just as top hats were oversized and overexpensive for their practical purpose, cars soon became also oversized and overexpensive for their practical purpose. The extravaganza of tailfins was a phenomenon of the late 1950s and early 1960s, but it was not so bad as the present-day fashion of the monstrosities that go under the name of "sport utility vehicles" (SUV). (image source:

SUVs may be seen as a bad case of mechanical obesity, but most cars on the road are overexpensive and underused: they are idle most of the time and they are used only for a small fraction of their load capacity. All of them, so far, had their main reason to exist in the fact that they served their purpose of status symbols. But the situation is rapidly changing: the trends toward social equality changed sign in a phenomenon called "The Great U-Turn" that gradually brought us back to the inequality levels of the 19th century, when people wore top hats. The reasons for this evolution are complex and not completely understood (but there are hints that it is related to fossil fuel depletion) In any case, these epochal changes can't be without consequences for transport.

Society is now splitting in two social classes: the very rich and the very poor; while the middle class is being rapidly squeezed out of existence. Stuck in the suburbs, the poor (the former middle class) desperately need transportation but they don't care anymore about keeping up with the Joneses. It is more a question of survival and any contraption that moves on wheels will do for them. The rich, on their part, don't really need cars to show their wealth. They compete with people in the same social class by means of much more expensive status symbols: mansions, estates, art, private jets, or whatever. For both the rich and the poor, cars cease to be a status symbol and become part of the concept of transportation as a service (TAAS). This concept includes both the traditional public transportation systems, from buses to trains, as well as the new forms of individual transportation made possible by the development of new technologies.

As a consequence of these trends, private cars are going to become as obsolete as top hats. That doesn't mean reversing the inequality trends. The rich will still ride luxurious vehicles, they just won't own them anymore, normally, just like when they travel first class on planes and trains. The poor will use TAAS to the extent they can afford it, otherwise they'll have to walk. That will be a good opportunity to abandon the bloated suburbs of our times and rebuild human-sized cities. The number of running cars will drastically diminish and those that will remain will mostly be of the right size for what they are needed. That means we'll use fewer fossil fuels, we'll reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases, and apply a lower pressure on the Earth's ecosystem.

Don't take all this as a praise for social inequality. If it were for me, I would much prefer to live in a world where people are valued for what they give rather than for what they own. But that's not the way our world works, today. There are some ongoing trends that we can't ignore. The demise of the wheeled dinosaurs that have plagued us for such a long time might be quite rapid (a true Seneca Collapse) and that will be a good thing.

By the way: we'll also wear hats again.


  1. "I would much prefer to live in a world where people are valued for what they give rather than for what they own." Just so. It was that way not so long ago really. Might happen again...

  2. In Uruguay people mostly don't wear hats, although they would need them because of the high UV. Baseball caps are known as "gorro de plancha": hoodlum caps, the criminal violent class wears them as a mark to show their status, they wear them back to front of course.

  3. I don't know the etymology of the word "hat", but perhaps we could avoid its resurgence to the position of a status/fashion symbol by renaming it to "the thing that goes atop your head to block the sharpness of the sun and prevent burns, particularly when out in the fields harvesting the energy provided by food". Doesn't have much of a ring to it though.

    p.s. That "hat" you see on my head in the adjacent photo isn't made from cattle leather but rather kangaroo leather. Which I suppose means I'm not a cow-boy but a kangaroo-boy.

    1. I know very few people who wear hats, but I know a lot of businessmen who have expensive cars.

      If I come to your factory proposing a partnership, the first thing you are going to look at is what kind of car I'm parking in your factory lot.

      If I can pay for an outrageously expensive car, it means I'm really rich, so I could be the right person to collaborate with.

      Some people rent cars on purpose to show off this way: but it's not just ostentation, it also has a practical purpose.

      Like looking at the shoes of aspiring salesmen: every salesman takes care of the upper part of his appearance, but you have to be a successful salesman making money to afford perfect shoes.

      And so it might be worth my while to hire you as a salesman.

  4. in the incoming global war for the richest remaining resources.. we might well see peak weapons (and everything else) well before we might be able to assemble a hat again.. ah yes, then that is peak hat too!

  5. The reasons for increasing inequality are well known - neoliberal policies introduced by Thatcher and Reagan, particularly drastic tax cuts for the rich, and deregulation of the economy leading to increasing monopolistic power and weaker unions, as well as globalization.

    1. I wish it were so simple, anonymous....

    2. inequality started with the neolithic, about 9,960 years before Thatcher...

  6. @Anonymous

    "neoliberal policies introduced by Thatcher and Reagan"

    If you look at the USA on the chart above, you will see that the trend towards inequality starts long before Reagan.

    Though I know little about economy, I think the roots are much deeper than the decision of one or two politicians.

    We shouldn't fall into the easy delusion of thinking a change of politicians can change the economy: think of the Greeks who voted Syriza.

    1. Or maybe Thatcher and Reagan are just symptoms of the end of post-WW2 growth → rise in unemployment and McJobs → more power to the 1%.

  7. I like the blunt characterization of cars as status symbols in this post, and the chuzpe to make a prediction from it: that it will loose this function soon.
    One remark to suburbia: with a combination of bicycle and public transport you can move over quite long distances nearly as fast as with a car, in the case of traffic jams and parking lot scarcity even faster, with a fraction of GHG emissions of course. We see a slow but promising rise of bicycle use in big cities (in my case Berlin), with a considerable asynchrony: were I live, in Kreuzberg, there are plenty of bikes on the streets, while were I work, the bicyclist is still a rare species.
    I can clearly observe the use of bicycles as status symbol within the bicycle using community: many prefer cool fixies without luggage racks and mudguards and impractically short handlebars in spite of their obvious disadvantages.

  8. Ugo, How goes your book on the Seneca effect ? When do u expect to publish ?

    1. Sent the corrected proofs to the publisher, about three hours ago!

  9. Delightful observation about Peak Hats, thank you.

    The Seneca Peak Hat downslope was noted by non other than Monty Python in this also delightful scene...

    1. Oh, yes! I had forgotten that scene from "The Meaning of Life"!!!!

  10. As a point of social history: before 1914, gentlemen always wore not only a hat, according to the season -straw in summer - but also fine, soft, gloves, to show that they didn't follow a manual trade, and carried an elegant cane.

    The cane was originally used to beat servants, a practice which ended in the West with the French Revolution, but continued in Russia until 1917.

    Let's consider another point: once heated, enclosed cars were available, and centrally-heated houses, hats became largely unnecessary in Western Europe.

    Here's a third point: hats as a sign that you have no class at all, or are trying to be a 'regular guy' even if rich: the sporting baseball cap.

    And, let's not forget the baseball cap worn back-to-front: signals minimal intelligence and/or criminality.

  11. Bucking the trend as usual, I ALWAYS wear hats! I have many of them. Two leather "Indiana Jones" Fedoras, one in black and one in brown. A rabbit fur Russian style hat and a Shearling hat, both with fold down earflaps for when it's really cold. A leather Spanish style taxi driver's cap. An Austrailian Oilskin rain hat with a broad brim and a Cowboy hat. A few others as well, but these are the main ones.

    I never leave the house with a hat on. They are super useful for protecting you from the weather, and you don't have to worry about if your hair is neatly combed when you have one on. Bowlers and Top Hats are of course foolish fashion statement hats without good functionality. A Top Hat will not stay on in any kind of wind at all, and the brim on a Bowler is too thin to give much rain protection.

    Similar to hats, cars have both functionality elements and status elements. Currently in most of the FSoA you need a car to get around unless you live in one of the few older cities with a decent public transport system, like NYC. Except even there, both the Subway and Commuter rail systems are falling apart even faster than the car and road system. The prices for riding on them have also become so expensive it's actually cheaper to drive around a car.

    Carz will of course disappear, but not as a result of changes in fashion or the distribution of wealth. They'll disappear because there won't be any profit in extracting the remaining fuel to run them.

    1. Bowler hats were invented to protect the heads of the gamekeepers at a big estate in Norfolk,England - as poachers tried to club them over the head and soft country hats were no good as protection.

  12. TaaS predicts increase of passenger miles. It means that will shall need more electric energy for charging batteries. It means that we shall burn more coal. (The only way to dig more coal is to use more oil for digging machines) It means that we shall have more pollution. It means that we shall have more expenses for solving problems of pollution. It means that we shall need more oil to produce more electric vehicles that will replace ICE vehicles. It means that we shall have more demand for oil. It means that the price will be higher (not lower) at least temporarily. It means that we shall need even more oil to build new infrastructure (charging stations, etc.) for the electric vehicles of the future... On top of all this the losses in electric energy production and distribution are huge.

    TaaS imagines the world of new technology for the transportation sector. That's exactly what is not sustainable in the long run.

  13. Funny enough, I reached the same conclusions about EV's, but by a different way.

    3h in spanish, for those that understand it.


  14. I heard a story saying that hats disapeared mainly because of the industrial production of shampoo in the 1930s (Hans Schwarzkopf)... so appart from status, hats were used to hide dirty hair.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017