Monday, 26 September 2011

Exchanging 'ats

A social/cultural aside from the previous post: quite a few contemporary references to the 'Arry and 'Arriet subculture refer to its custom of couples exchanging hats to show they were an item.

This is the scene presented by Margate sands every day, and every hour of the day, during the season—serenely domestic at moments, boisterously hilarious at others, especially when a big excursion is let loose upon the place. Then you have the courting that is done by blows and thumps; then you see 'Arry and 'Arriet exchanging hats; then you have horse-play bedlam; and mounted police show themselves in the near streets, and magistrates, the next morning, are officially shocked by the conduct of the « savages » from London.
- London at play: on Margate's sands, Elizabeth Robins Pennell, pp569-, The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Volume 54, 1897.

In European folk-custom there are several traces of this, bride and groom exchanging head-dresses and the like. After betrothal the Ainu boy and girl wear each other's clothes. This method of union is a common phenomenon in love - practice, and when a modern 'Arry and 'Arriet exchange hats, the fact is no coincidence, but is due to the same principle inherent in the human consciousness.
- The mystic rose: a study of primitive marriage, Alfred Ernest Crawley, 1902.

Our native 'Arry and 'Arriet, when they " walk out " together in amicable companionship, are accustomed to express their mutual affection by possessing themselves of, and wearing, each other's hats.
- page 953, The Bookseller, Volume 53, 1910.

The courtship of a pair of green parrots is as amusing to watch as that of any 'Arry and 'Arriet. Not possessing hats the amorous birds are unable to exchange them, but otherwise their actions are quite coster-like.
- A Bird Calendar for Northern India, Douglas Dewar, 1916

This would explain why 'Arry is wearing a lady's hat in this Punch cartoon.

Wearing the wrong hat or exchanging hats was a comic staple (the Marx Brothers and the hat-swapping scene in Waiting for Godot spring to mind) - but one with undercurrents. In an era when hat-wearing was near-universal, choice of hat was strongly constrained by, and identified with, social status and role, so 'Arry and 'Arriet wearing wrong-gendered hats must have seemed very edgy.

This leads neatly away from 'Arry and 'Arriet to the American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) whose Exchanging Hats, unpublished in her lifetime, touches directly on choice of hat as a signifier of sexual orientation.

Exchanging Hats

Unfunny uncles who insist
in trying on a lady's hat,
--oh, even if the joke falls flat,
we share your slight transvestite twist

in spite of our embarrassment.
Costume and custom are complex.
The headgear of the other sex
inspires us to experiment.

Anandrous aunts, who, at the beach
with paper plates upon your laps,
keep putting on the yachtsmen's caps
with exhibitionistic screech,

the visors hanging o'er the ear
so that the golden anchors drag,
--the tides of fashion never lag.
Such caps may not be worn next year.

Or you who don the paper plate
itself, and put some grapes upon it,
or sport the Indian's feather bonnet,
--perversities may aggravate

the natural madness of the hatter.
And if the opera hats collapse
and crowns grow draughty, then, perhaps,
he thinks what might a miter matter?

Unfunny uncle, you who wore a
hat too big, or one too many,
tell us, can't you, are there any
stars inside your black fedora?

Aunt exemplary and slim,
with avernal eyes, we wonder
what slow changes they see under
their vast, shady, turned-down brim.

- Ray

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