LAUREL & HARDY: THE HAT
FACTS (Part 2)
By Tyler St. Mark
© 2011 For Website Syndication/All Other Rights Reserved
for part one of
Laurel and Hardy: The Hat Facts
To fully appreciate “the hat facts” of
Laurel & Hardy, one must comprehend the era they derived from and
why hats were so important back then. Understand the sensibilities
of those times and you will know why Stan and Babe (Hardy) wore so
many different hats both on and off the screen, and why they chose
derbies for their characters and not, let’s say, top hats or
By the start of the twentieth century in America, hats not only
identified one’s livelihood or career, they defined one’s status in
life. Most every type of employment, from the milkman and doorman to
the nurse and undertaker, was associated with a particular type of
hat. Even one’s social and economic standing was suggested by their
head covering; an inference often exploited in the theatre and “the
flickers.” In these early films, you could not only tell the good
guys from the bad guys by the hats they were wearing, you could
distinguish the rich from the poor, and trades people from the
The bowler hat was invented in 1849 by London hat makers Thomas and
William Bowler to fulfill a custom order placed by Lock & Co hatters
who had been commissioned by Edward Coke, a nephew to the Earl of
Derby, to design a close-fitting, low-crowned hat to protect his
gamekeepers from tree branches while on horseback since the top hats
they usually wore were constantly being knocked off and damaged.
The derby was mostly associated with
Peaking in popularity by the late 1800’s, this new English bowler
offered a respectable compromise to both the formal top hat
associated with the upper classes and the soft felt hats worn by the
lower classes. By the new century, the “derby” (American slang for
the hat popularized when the 12th Earl of Derby wore one to the
Derby races) was mostly worn with suits and overcoats and actually
symbolized male power dressing. However, it eventually became a
relic of the Victorian age, gleefully cast off by the Roaring 1920’s
for trendier headwear like the straw boater and Italian fedora.
According to Stan Laurel, the motive
behind their wearing derbies was simple. The Boys perceived their
characters essentially as “rubes;” dumb working class stiffs trying
to get ahead and dressed for success—but looking twenty years behind
the times. By that tine, the derby was mostly associated with urban
society; particularly with well-to-do people who had risen from the
working class but had yet to elevate their fashion sense.
So, according to Stan, it was a natural
choice for “Stan & Ollie” to sport derbies which, along with their
winged collars, were considered dignified but conspicuously out of
fashion. Stan felt that these vestiges of a bygone era, combined
with his simple gray tweed suit and Babe’s classic navy suit or grey
salt-and-pepper sports jacket, afforded the half-assed dignity he
desired for their stupid but stately film personas.
Even before their true screen characters
emerge; cast as vagrants in one of their first films together, Duck
Soup (1927), Stan sports a battered derby while Babe is wearing a
shabby and worn out top hat—perhaps their first attempt at seeking
the slightly out-of-fashion stateliness which would become the
wardrobe hallmark of their future screen personas.
Like Stan, I also had a fascination with hats from a very early age
and, like both Laurel & Hardy, I was born of a generation whose
sensibilities mandated that men and women were not properly dressed
in public without wearing one. In fact, up until the late 50’s, a
proper lady or gentleman would never be seen in public without a
hat. Even children were expected to wear hats to certain public
events and functions.
Stan the schoolboy.
Indeed, in many of Stan’s childhood
photographs, he is wearing a hat or head covering. According to
Stan’s daughter, Lois Laurel-Hawes, her great-grandmother had
impressed upon Stan early on the importance of wearing a head
covering if, for no other reason, during cold Lancashire weather,
“the heat will escape from the top of your head!”
In Stan’s early music hall photographs, he is usually wearing a hat
of one sort or another. While crossing to America with the Fred
Karno troupe, Stan wore a common tweed flat cap, lightly indicative
of both his youthful outlook and his working class status. In Stan
and Babe’s early candid photographs together, they are usually
wearing hats and, in more film stills than not, Stan & Ollie are
wearing hats. Throughout their lives and careers, hats seemingly
played an essential part in both the public and private lives of The
Stan and his flatcap, 1920s.
In fact, you can just about gage Laurel &
Hardy’s film success by the hats they display, from their snappy but
thrifty straw skimmers or “boaters” before and during the early
Roach years, to the more expensive Homburgs and Borsilonos they
strut when their films are being widely celebrated across the
Laurel & Hardy appeared together in about 106 films. They wore their
trademark derbies in about 75 of those films. However, they donned
more than 95 other types of hats in over 84 of their films. Yes,
it’s true; foot for celluloid foot, Stan and Ollie truly wore many
more other kinds of hats than they did their celebrated bowlers.
Sammy Benson, who worked as a wardrobe assistant at Hal Roach
Studios before going over to MGM and 20th Century Fox, had a special
affinity with Stan and his passion for hats. According to his
daughter, Marjorie, Sammy and Stan would huddle with delight over
the possibilities with each new script; eagerly seeking every
opportunity to put The Boys, individual or collectively, in
something other than their usual derbies. According to Sammy,
however, this was no lark. It seems that Stan was concerned that
audiences might tire of seeing the same wardrobe on The Boys, film
after film, and so he actively sought to strategically invigorate
their appearance whenever possible with the use of hats.
In addition to top hats, boaters, sailor
hats, tam o shams, police hats, military hats, fire helmets,
feathered hats, night caps, knit caps, sombreros, and the occasional
ladies cloche hat and sequined fascinator, Mr. Laurel & Mr. Hardy
also donned head gear as exotic as Russian busbies, silk turbans
and, of course, their illustrious Turkish fezzes.
Stan and Babe wore over 95 other hats in
Indeed, of all their supplementary film
headwear, Stan and Babe are most celebrated for their simple
hand-sewn, single chain-lock stitched, golden-rod thread embroidered
fezzes imported from Istanbul. It is estimated that over eight dozen
maroon colored fez blanks were obtained from several local fraternal
order suppliers in the Fall of 1933, over-laid with a tissue paper
tracing template bearing the somewhat crude image of a setting sun,
and individually trace-stitched by several seamstresses working
urgently on what were likely Cornely A industrial grade chain-stitch
sewing machines. When even these efforts were proving too slow for
the shooting schedule, the fezzes which were to be worn by scene
extras in the distance were hastily imprinted with the design via a
A legend I cannot verify at this time was passed on to my Pop by a
friend and colleague, William Lambert, who insisted the fez’s
setting sun logo, now worn by members of the Sons of the Desert all
over the world, was actually an unfinished sketch by costume
designer, Irene Lenzt, known more simply in the fashion world as
According to Will, who also worked in the Hal Roach wardrobe
department at the time, Irene was brought in to design some gowns
for several films. Not yet famous herself, her late husband, F.
Richard Jones, had once been Head of Production at Roach and revered
by Stan who sought to keep her employed after his untimely death in
1930. Since Irene’s father had been a Shiner, she was asked to
quickly whip up a logo for a fez to be worn by a fictitious
fraternal order she misunderstood to be the “Sun of the Desert.”
The story goes that Irene began the logo sketch but was suddenly
called onto the set of another film to address some wardrobe
problems. The wardrobe supervisor, thinking the fez design was
completed, immediately made a template from Irene’s sketch and had
already stitched the design onto a dozen fezzes by the time Irene
returned later that day. Will told my Pop that Irene only admitted
many years later that the design rushed into production and now
familiar worldwide to Laurel & Hardy fans, had never been finished.
True or not, such production anomalies are not unusual during the
hustle and bustle of meeting film schedules and, as Hal Roach would
likely say, “It’s a better story!”
Produced as quickly (and cheaply) as possible for a few scenes of
what would become one of Laurel & Hardy’s most celebrated films,
Sons of the Desert (1933), nobody had any idea then that these hats
would someday be among the most prized of Laurel & Hardy
memorabilia. As I said before, back in those days, wardrobe was just
wardrobe and, after production, nobody needed 100 fezzes bearing the
same design along with the name of an only moderately successful
Roach film short. So, those fezzes that were not retained as
keepsakes by the cast, crew, and studio personnel were eventually
sold off to local costume companies where they gathered dust, moth
holes, and fell into obscurity. Some were altered or reconstructed
for other projects while others were simply discarded. It has been
estimated that there are less than a dozen original SOTD fezzes left
The Sons of the Desert Fez.
However, as I also stated before, these
precious relics seemingly have a mind of their own and there are
enumerable stories of how present day owners found or acquired their
original Sons of the Desert fezzes. My favorite account is from a
film colleague who discovered one in the front window of a vintage
clothing store in Los Angeles. Apparently, the fez was part of a
local estate that had just arrived and the fez had not been sitting
in the window for long. My friend rushed into the store, his heart
beating fast, and purchased the hat for less than the price of a
first run movie.
“I walked out of the store with my fez,” my friend says imitating a
very satisfied Ollie, “and nobody was any the wiser!”
Another colleague reports a similar experience with not one but two
original fezzes in a hat store in Burbank some years ago. The
proprietor had no idea where they came from,” my friend explains
emphatically, “and so we purchased both of them very cheaply.”
Other collectors, of course, have not been quite so fortunate,
having paid as high as eight thousand dollars at auction for an
authentic SOTD fez, with or without the original tassel.
Throughout his often turbulent film career of over fifty years, hats
continued to play an affable if not comforting role in Stan Laurel’s
life both on and off the silver screen. Stan wore hats everywhere;
to the studio, to social engagements and sporting events, even while
he was golfing, gardening or fishing. Stan prided himself on
discovering some unique and interesting new head covering whenever
and wherever he might venture. Once, returning from a brief
excursion with friends to Mexico, Stan searched for and brought back
the biggest sombrero he could find.
Stan’s daughter, Lois, recalls fondly that her father often
performed hat tricks for her and her childhood friends. “He would
roll his hat down his arm, catching it at the last second and, of
course, he performed his famous hat trick against the back of the
wall—just like in their films,” she remembers happily.
As I stated before, during their many tours and travels across the
world, Stan & Babe spared no opportunity to display the indigenous
headwear of the time--much to their public’s delight. According to
Will Lambert, Stan personally preferred fedoras and, for a short
time during the 40’s, took a particular fancy to a Stetson model
known widely as The Stratoliner.
Stan and Babe wore fedoras later in life.
By the early 50’s, however, social norms
and standards were beginning to relax and public tastes were
changing both in comedy and in fashion. More and more, people were
adopting a much more casual attitude about headwear in public and
hats seemed destined to go the way of the derby.
Not Laurel & Hardy however. The Boys continued to exhibit various
head gear on and off the screen and, in their very last film, Atoll
K (1951), Stan and Ollie wore several other hats in addition to
their trademark derbies.
Even when they returned to Hal Roach
Studios for the last time in 1954 to see their old boss and to help
dedicate Lake Laurel & Hardy, they were wearing their best fedoras.
However, when Babe Hardy passed away in 1957, so apparently did
Stan’s passion for collecting hats. Stan never again publicly donned
the trademark bowler that had come to be so profoundly associated
with Laurel & Hardy. Some say it was out of respect for his late
comedy partner. I believe it was more than that. I believe that
their derbies were such an intrinsic part of their comedy pairing
that Stan simply felt uncomfortable wearing one any longer.
Lois Laurel with one of her Dad's hats.
Indeed, during his final years, living
modestly but comfortably with his dutiful wife, Ida, at the Oceana
in Santa Monica, Stan Laurel rarely left his apartment, whether for
his customary early dinner at a nearby restaurant or for his monthly
haircut, without wearing one of his fedoras—even while the Beat
Generation was sporting trilbies and sport caps or going totally
hatless altogether. Although fedoras were already fading into
obsolescence like the top hat, derby, and straw boater, the former
Clown Prince of Comedy remained ever faithful to bygone social
etiquette, refusing to submit to rash 60’s sensibilities.
After all, Stan was born of a generation celebrated for wearing hats
and was part of an era that defined its society by their headwear.
He worked and reveled in an industry that used and abused hats to no
end; and in the process, he made two of them, placed together, an
international comedy hallmark.
Most importantly, he believed a gentleman should never be seen in
public without his hat. And as their personal and professional
histories show, and these hat facts clearly demonstrate, Laurel &
Hardy were, above all else, forever and always, gentle men.
for part one of Tyler St. Mark's
excellent paper concerning
Stan and Ollie’s iconic headwear.
St. Mark is a writer/producer/actor in Los Angeles and
presently in preproduction on the reprise of his 1974
landmark production now titled “Stan Laurel Backstage.”