The heavy head of state

St. Edward's Crown, ca 1661

I watched a man have an expensive hat put on his head today. I’m not sure why. I mean, I know why the man put the hat on: he needed to assert his supremacy over his subjects, and donning an extravagant item of headgear on television is the established way of doing it. I just wasn’t planning to watch. But then I thought about the last time somebody wore a bejewelled hat on TV, and the fact that people talked about the spectacle for decades afterwards. Some of them had even gone out and bought a fuzzy old black and white television set so they could witness it. Their less fortunate peers made a special trip to the pub or the cinema. I concluded there must be something magical about this family’s hat-wearing skills that could captivate millions of people even in this era of Facebook, YouTube and TikTok, and I was curious to know what it was.

Part of the appeal was that it was the first such celebration of the hatter’s or milliner’s art to take place for 70 years. Before that hat-wearing ceremonies had been more frequent, but television had yet to be invented, so only scratchy audio recordings survived, and putting on a hat isn’t an activity that makes for great radio drama. Three such events survived in folk memory from the first half of the 20th century, which no doubt accounts for the popularity of the 1952 edition. There would have been a fourth, but the prospective hat-wearer had decided to forsake it in favour of the woman he loved. It must have been quite a dilemma to choose between a woman and a hat, since he even asked the prime minister’s advice on the matter, and many people still believe he made the wrong choice. Such is the influence of hats in a constitutional monarchy.

Today’s ceremony took place in a big chapel, with choral music and tailcoats, giving it the air of an end-of-year service at a top private school. The hat ceremony marked the end of the man’s probation period in his new job, at the age of 74. Most people who are still working at that age are spending two days a week stacking shelves or a bit of light gardening, so this was a rare opportunity indeed. It occurred to me that he had been waiting almost his entire life to put on the hat: he must have dreamed about it countless times, contemplating the sensation of it resting on his head, whether the hatband would sit firm or chafe his ears, what product he should use in his hair. Yet now the moment had arrived he looked strangely uncomfortable. Perhaps it was because he was sitting on a very old, very hard wooden chair, which can be excruciating when you get to your mid-seventies and your gluteus maximus resembles a squashed cushion. He was dressed in a long, flowing, ornate gold robe, like a wizard. Another man, also in a long dress, stood very close to him and spoke loudly, which is another of the irritating things that happens to you in old age. He handed the man a white glove, making me wonder for a second if would pull a live animal out of the hat as part of the ceremony. The man made a big performance out of pulling on the glove, as if reassuring the crowd that he wasn’t having a heart attack underneath all that heavy gear. Then he was handed two large pokers and then, since his hands were full, the other man slowly and carefully lowered the hat onto his head.

Scholars of the ancient art of hat-wearing had explained that this was a radical departure from previous ceremonies, because the man was wearing a different hat from his mother. At his request a large, heavy rock that was incorporated into his mother’s hat was left out, I supposed because she had been much younger and had stronger neck muscles. Another hat was placed on the head of his wife, who was sitting behind him. The combination of the hard seat and the weight of the hat was clearly starting to take its strain, because the man decided to get up at this point and move to a more comfortable seat. But he was so weighed down by gilded clobber that two other men in dresses had to help him cover the short distance. His wife, less sartorially burdened, was able to walk unassisted, though her hat wobbled precariously atop her head and at one point she had to ask somebody to untangle her dress. Finally the man lowered himself into the comfortable chair and sat, still wearing an expression of inscrutable unease, while the assembled crowd proclaimed him their champion hat-wearer.

I was left thinking: television must have been very dull indeed in 1952.

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