Bowler Hats: Chaplin and Bloom…Sally Bowles and Sabina

A few decades ago, I remember having to read a piece on “the sociology of clothing in the Victorian era.” The author’s intent was to show that fashion had a subtext. I remember clearly the argument about men’s hats. The thesis was that the height of a man’s hat in Victorian England was proportionate to his status on the social scale.  i.e. The society toffs wore tall top hats, the navvies and farmers wore flat caps.

I thought of this again after a conversation about “bowlers.” A friend and I had just finished reading Milos Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and were commenting on the bowler hat that the character Sabina is attached to (it reminds her of her grandfather) and which she often wears during sex.

“It’s a silly hat,” my friend said. “There is really nothing sexy about it.”

Silly or sexy?  I’d state that both things are true, depending on who’s wearing it.

For Christmas this year, my young nephew gave me a tee-shirt imprinted with the text of Joyce’s Ulysses on it. The text is manipulated to depict Leopold Bloom’s mustache and bowler hat. (Though I argue that Bloom would never wear his hat tilted at such a jaunty angle.)


Leopold Bloom t-shirt

Now, although the book ends with Bloom’s wife repeatedly affirming her husband’s worth (“yes,  yes I said yes I will Yes.”), throughout much of the novel, Bloom is a figure of ridicule.  And a bowler hat only underscores that. (In truth, those who most ridicule him wear flat caps or no hats at all.)

When I was little my parents enjoyed Laurel and Hardy. (How politically incorrect we all 354845-laurel-and-hardywere then: I didn’t know their names were “Laurel and Hardy” until much later. My mom had always called them “Fats and Skinny.”)  They both wore bowlers, doffing them in times of embarrassment or playing with them in times of nervousness.

Now, Chaplin’s bowler represents something else. As the Little Tramp, he is at the very bottom of the social scale, and yet his dignity, manners and goodheartedness far outshine those socially above him. Perhaps, it is that chiasmus between the tramp and gentle-behavior and “gentlemen” and their boorishness that the bowler suggests. It could also simply be that the “little tramp” is wearing whatever has been tossed aside.  Nevertheless, it is part of his comic ensemble. In the film Chaplin, there is a marvelous scene where Robert Downey Jr. as Chaplin, first puts together his iconic “Little Tramp” costume, beginning with the hat.


But then you have the women. On the female, the bowler hat moves from an object of comedy or ridicule to something sexy, even forbidding.

It seems in every dance revue–whether a toddlers’ dance recital or the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall–there is one number where the females are dressed in stockings and shorts, tux shirts and ties…and a bowler hat. The hat acts as a prop, an accessory and the dancers put them on and off, dance with them held in front or waving above their heads.

In the film Cabaret, Sally Bowles is played by Liza Minnelli–perhaps the greatest role of her career. And while the film is certainly different than the play –and the novels from whichcabaret it was drawn–it is Minnelli that people most closely associate with Cabaret and Sally Bowles. Straddling a chair, her bowler hat rakishly tilted on her head, Bowles lustily sings and performs at the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin as the Third Reich begins its ascent. She–and the cabaret she works at–are the very symbols of the sexuality and decadence that the Nazi’s demonize in their rise to power, symbols of the “other” that the Nazis want to purge.

And in Minnelli’s performance, it is the bowler hat that represents this decadence–a symbol of transgression, of otherness, of living life as SHE wants it.

(Please note: I know that there have been extraordinary actresses who have taken on the role of Sally Bowles on the stage, from Julie Harris and Judi Dench to Natasha Richardson and Brooke Shields to Emma Stone and Michelle Williams. But still it is Minnelli’s film version that has the most resonance with the most people.)

Just as Sally Bowles performs her cabaret in Berlin during the Nazis’ rise to power, so too is Sabina creating her art as the Soviet Union crushes the Czech Spring in Milos Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Although we have moved from 1920 Berlin to 1960s Prague,  the same tensions exist–the forces of love, freedom, and humanity in opposition to the bureaucratic autocracy of the State. This time the state is the USSR.

For the painter Sabina, her bowler is a sort of fetish–a memory of her grandfather and a quirk of her sexuality. It is very much a part of her.   Kundera describes Sabina’s hat as such:

The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition that was Sabina’s life. It returned again and again, each time with a different meaning, and all the meanings flowed through the bowler hat like water through a riverbed. … each time the same object would give rise to a new meaning, though all former meanings would resonate (like an echo, like a parade of echoes) together with the new one.

Thus the bowler hat has apotheosized from a mere garment and quirky accessory to something much more. And in the politically charged world of Prague in 1968, that tumblr_mdy9zuvYH01rhlu7wo1_500something more is crucial to life, to a sense of independence, to a sense of identity. And on Lena Olin, who played Sabina in the 1988 film version of the book, it also looks incredibly sexy.

So whether it accompanies John Cleese’s ungainly stride within the Ministry of Silly Walks or Lena Olin steaming up scenes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, one finds that the bowler fills both extremes–from the ridiculous to the erotic.  That often seems to be the divide.

That is until you bring in Alex from A Clockwork Orange. And then it’s a whole different story…





Work in Progress

(Arranged in Alphabetical Order for Convenience)
J. P. Bohannon

Andromache: cf. Racine, Jean.

Antigone:  “Antigone inspired Hegel to his magisterial meditation on tragedy: two antagonists face to face, each of them inseparably bound to a truth that is partial, relative, but, considered in itself, entirely justifiable.” (The Curtain, Milos Kundera, page 110). Kundera then says that History cannot therefore be tragic. What in his definition allows him to say this:   “Inseparably bound”?   or “a truth that is partial, relative, but …entirely justifiable”?

Beauvoir, Simone de:  “There were other humiliations for Simone as well: she was the last chosen for any game or athletic contest, and her efforts to join any of the playground groups were usually greeted with hooting laughter.  With the innocent cruelty of children she was scorned by her schoolmates as much for her ill-fitting clothes and general untidiness as for her self-important pronouncements.  She was a gawky chatterbox, entirely friendless.  There really was no model, no influence, no one and nothing at all in her life to help her develop any social or societal graces.”  (Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography, Deidre Bair, p. 63.)  QUESTION: Does unpopularity on the playground and in the classroom affect children so that they have one of two choices when they reach adulthood: greatness or psychosis?

Brain Mass:  “One of his patients was a postgraduate student with an IQ of 126, a first-class honours degree in mathematics, a regular social life and virtually no brain. ‘Instead of the normal 4.5-centimetre thickness of brain tissue between the ventricles and the cortical surface, there was just a thin layer of mantle measuring a millimeter or so. His cranium is filled mainly with cerebrospinal fluid.’ ”
James Hamilton-Patterson, “Do Fish Feel Pain?” Granta: This
 Overheating World,  No 83, Fall 2003, pp161-173.

Cockney Slang:   I go into a pub in London and see some people I know.  I order a pint and ask the others if I can get them one.  “Nah, I’m Van Gogh,” says bald-headed Nick.  “Wha?”  I answer back. “I’m Van Gogh,” he says. “I’ve got one ‘ere.”

The Colombo Club: I worked for a while for a group of bricklayers, the Calabrese Brothers. On Fridays, in the summer we would quit early and go to the Colombo Italian Club on the Lansdowne Road.  There were darts, shuffleboard, and cards. They always paid us in cash. Much of it stayed there on a Friday night.

Drew, Ronnie (of The Dubliners):  As a teenager, my friend Justin once dated Ronnie Drew’s daughter.  He went for tea one afternoon at their house, and while the women were busy in the kitchen, Ronnie spoke his first words to him: “If you get her up the pole, I’ll feking kill you.”  Despite this Justin and the girl remained friends, and at her 21st birthday bash, he met Van the Man.  Wikipedia cites Ronnie Drew in its article on Finnegans Wake for his recitation of the Humpty Dumpty poem.

Eliot, T.S.:  Pound X’d out the entire first 54 lines of The Wasteland and Eliot accepted his changes.  (And that was just the first 54 lines. Pound’s heavy pen is crossing things out throughout the original typescript.) The poem originally began: “First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place,/There was old Tom, boiled to the eyes, blind.”  For some reason, I never imagine Eliot getting sloshed or womanizing but there it is: “Get me a woman, I said; you’re too drunk, she said,/ But she gave me a bed, and a bath, and ham and eggs.”  Even if it is another character and not the poet (isn’t that some sort of fallacy we learned once in school) that particular world seems alien to that pursey-lipped banker.

The Ginger Man: A woman accosted me on the 110 Bus from 69th Street to West Chester while I was reading The Ginger Man by J. P. Dunleavy. She called it sexist, misogynist and misanthropic.  I told her I always loved the guy drinking at the pub in a kangaroo costume and that’s why I wanted to read it again.  She had bright red lipstick with much of it stuck on her beautiful teeth.

Ibsen:  Someone compared Billy Wilder’s The Apartment with Ibsen’s plays. The comparison made sense.  In fact, it was said that Torvald’s bank seemed enlightened compared to the work place in Wilder.

Irish Phrases:  
Aris, mo bhuachailin Ní thagann ciall roimh aois  = Sense doesn’t come before age

Joyce, Lucia.  She had strabisimus and was an accomplished dancer.  She was also highly intelligent, although wasn’t given much credit for it. She was diagnosed schizophrenic. A very tall shadow blocked her sun.

Kafka:  Kafka means crow in Czech.

Kundera, Milos: In The Incredible Lightness of Being, the character Sammy says that she thinks of New York as “Beauty by Mistake.”  What a great phrase!  I copy it down in my journal.  It will be the title of my next novel, CD, film, whatever.  I begin a short story with the title, but do not get very far.  Last month, the NYTIMES featured an article tracing Kundera’s appearances in its Book Reviews.  The article is titled “Beauty by Mistake.”    AAAARRRGH!

Madonna:   A good pun for the iron Madonna sculpture in my cemetery story: “A ferrous-wheeled Madonna.”  I love it.

Madonna (the singer): Toni, who flew out to LA to waitress at the Vanity Fair Oscar party, told me that Madonna seemed to want to talk only to other faux-Brits.

New Words:
Parp  1. (verb) To break wind, to fart.
2. (noun) Nonsense, rubbish.
…a green double-decker bus that parped its horn at him.

Paine, Thomas:   (Letter to the Editor, London Review of Books, 4 January 2007).  “In John Barrell, the London Review tasked a truffle hunter to examine Christopher Hitchen’s book Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man‘ (30th November 2006).  But instead of sniffing out tasty morsels for salivating LRB readers, Professor Barrell chose to stick his snout in a cow pie.”  Marvelous!!!!

The Puck Building:  Originally built in 1886.  A second building was added on in 1893 when Lafayette Street pushed through.  The statue of Puck is a duplicate of the original.  The original stood over the doorway.  It’s the building where Grace worked in the television show, Will and Grace.

Quiche Lorainne:
1 9-in. unbaked pie shell
8 slices of bacon
6 ounces Swiss Cheese, shredded
1 tbsp flour
½ tsp salt
Dash ground nutmeg
3 eggs
1 ½ cups of light cream

Cook & crumble bacon. Reserving 2 tbsp crumbled backon, place remaining bacon in partially baked pastry shell (450° for five minutes).  Add shredded cheese.  Combie (beat) flour, salt, nutmeg, eggs, & cream.  Pour over bacon & cheese in pasty shell.. Trim with reserved bacon.
Bake at 325° till knife comes out clean, about 25-40 minutes.

Racine, Jean.   Andromache: Orestes →Hermione; Hermione→King Pyrruss; King Pyrruss →Andromache; Andromache→Hector.  (Hector is dead.)  Check out Hector in the made for TV mini-series, The Odyssey.  His death had to be divinely manipulated.

Romanticism:  “The battle of the outs against the ins must be older than history, but the idiosyncratic psychological coloring of the Romantic struggle came from the Romantics’ passionate pride in being out—while, of course, they were struggling to get in.”   (Romanticism and Realism, Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner).

Russian Woman on train:  6/12/06—Russian woman on train. Beautiful. Very dark but with eyes that in one light might be called green but today are sparkling grey—beautiful and literally attractive: they pull you in.  She has two children. One about five in a stroller, another a large baby, slung in some sort of sling.  The R8 out of Philadelphia travels westward towards Chestnut Hill.  It is typically urban. Cement pillars, graffiti, discarded tires, old RR ties, glass.  At one point the tracks cross the Schuylkill River. It is the same scene.  The five year old—who up until this time has been speaking Russian—speaks out in English to his mother: “Look Momma.  It is beautiful.” The Mother also speaks in English only once. A young boy—16 or 17—gets on the train. “Oh, it’s Alex,” she says.  “Alex, Raisa, Hi Alex.”  She was brilliant.  He gave her an adolescent grunt. I wanted to strangle him.

Stevenson, Adlai.  Janet Flanner (in Paris Journal: 1965-1970) quotes Stevenson’s obituary in Le Monde: “The tragedy of Dallas assured to John F. Kennedy a posthumous radiance that memories of Stevenson will never know.  Yet Stevenson during his lifetime was no less an influence than the assassinated President. … Without doubt, Stevenson’s integrity and intelligence were loftier than those of even the elite of American political personalities.

Unacceptable CD Players:
Students may not use CD Players that:
Require an electrical outlet
Accept more than one CD
Have duplication or recording capabilities
                   (from the SAT® Program Associate Supervisor’s Manual, 2006-2007)

Vietnam:  The French lost control of Vietnam after the battle of Dien Bien Phu.  It was in 1954.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps:  How cool is the string quartet in George Martin’s remastered version for the Cirque du Soleil production, Love?  How sweet is George Harrison’s thin voice on the demo tape.

“Cette fois, c’est la Femme que j’ai vue dans la Ville, et à qui j’ai parlé et qui me parle.” Rimbaud. (“This time I found and spoke to the woman in the city.”)  I don’t know what this means. It often happens with me and Rimbaud.

Zorro:   In the early 1960s my aunt took me to a department store to see Guy Williams dressed as Zorro.  There was an entire set, Spanish-style adobe building, cactus, rough-hewn fence.  I spoke to him for about three minutes.  On another floor, children were lining up to see Santa.  The last time that the actor who played Sgt. Garcia was seen on television was in October, 1967.  He appeared on an episode of Mannix.