Men’s hats

During the 1920s Italy annually exported about 12.5 million men’s felt hats and more than 11 million straw or chip hats. In total there were more than 1,000 hat manufacturers in Italy, employing roughly 20,000 workers. From the mid-1950s, un unstoppable decline set in: hats, which until that moment had been an essential item of mens’ wardrobe, went out of fashion. Little by little the old hat manufacturers gave up. Long-established shops disappeared. The light, foldable plume models, enormous cowboy hats, classic trilbies, and the various shapes that fashion has created over the years — sometimes by changing the size, or enlarging or reducing the brim, or raising or lowering the top — no longer had a place in the concept of elegance, except in the minds of the few, obstinate traditionalists. The most important centers of production were deserted. Felt hats were manufactured in dozens of small factories and shops scattered all around Italy: from Alessandria to Monza, from Biella to Intra, from Voghera to Sagliano Micca, from Spinetta Marengo to Alzano Maggiore, from Montappone to Montevarchi and Prato, from Maglie to Cremona. Pretty much everywhere there were small companies that manufactured high-quality products. Even in the mid-1930s, Monza was still flooding the Western world with Verdi-style homburgs, exporting 80% of what it produced. Now, there are only about 20 or so hat factories in all of Italy, and they produce mainly for women. In Italy, the market leader has always been Borsalino. Giuseppe Borsalino, the founder of the family, emigrated to France around 1840. In Paris he specialized in the art of hat making and, after various problems, he returned to Italy in 1857. In Alessandria, he opened his first workshop-store. The company flourished and soon the brand became known all over the world. Giovanni Giolitti only wore Borsalino hats, and John Dillinger had a gray Borsalino on his head when he was shot down by American police in 1934. At moments of his greatest renown, Al Capone expressly ordered hats for himself and his most faithful lieutenants from the Piedmont factory. He wanted the felt to be manufactured with beaver hair blended with fibers from wild rabbits. The name Borsalino was even taken as the title of a film starring Jean-Paul Belmondo. A fundamental characteristic of a prestigious hat is the leather strip that rings the inside; it must always be made of kid leather and come from Liège in Belgium. The hat is completed by the ribbon, invariably in satin, and silk lining. The few companies that still make these chic items manufacture them using the techniques of a century ago, and using the same ancient instruments: the wooden moulds, cast iron grips, spring-operated vaporizers, and cherry-wood counters. Sure, the craftsmen’s skills, handed on from one generation to the next inside the workshops, are slowly disappearing, at the same rhythm with which ancient instruments are gradually substituted with new machines. Sure, rabbit skins are no longer used, and pre-treated hair from Argentina or Australia is used instead; but the more than forty phases of production, from blowing to packaging, which in a period of 7-8 weeks give birth to a felt hat, are still there. Only in this way does the highest quality hare or wild rabbit fur become a real hat, and merit the name of prestigious brands such as Borsalino, Rossi, Barbisio, and Bagnara di Cardanello.