When people think of costumes, they tend to think of elaborate, old-fashioned gowns, like the ones in Victorian novel adaptations. Sometimes, however, a fictional character's most significant piece of clothing is something simple—a hat, perhaps. Take Walter White. The chemistry teacher-turned-meth dealer played by Bryan Cranston in AMC's acclaimed series Breaking Bad dons a porkpie hat at the end of season one and adopts the alias "Heisenberg." This marks a turning point for Walt, the precise moment when his soul is corrupted.
Given how crucial the hat is to Walt and the show as a whole, I was pleased to find it among the Breaking Bad artifacts that the museum acquired from Sony Pictures Television, along with a bag of (fake) blue meth, Tyvek lab suits, and other props and costumes. Several cast members and producers attended the November 10 donation ceremony, including show creator Vince Gilligan and Cranston himself.
Porkpie hats have been prominent in American culture since Charlie Chaplin sported one in his silent films, according to Dwight Blocker Bowers, the museum's emeritus entertainment curator. Walt's is more than just a fashion choice. Not only does it enhance his connection to Werner Heisenberg, the German scientist who established the uncertainty principle and inspired White's alter ego, but the hat also ties him to a past era. It transforms him, granting him a kind of mythic status.
"America certainly deals with the self-made man," Bowers said. "Part of the drive is that this was a new country at one time. You could come here and leave everything that you had in your previous place of living and start a new you. I think that goes with the turf. You can go to any environment here and just literally built your own identity. . . . The hat allows [Walt] to make that transition."
Inspired by the acquisition of the Heisenberg hat, I sat down with Bowers to discuss other famous hats in the museum's entertainment collections.
In the mid-1950s, ABC aired a five-part miniseries that featured Davy Crockett wearing a coonskin cap. It elevated the real-life frontiersman from folk hero to genuine icon and launched a nationwide fashion craze, its lighthearted depiction of an untamed West no doubt resonating with audiences mired in suburbia. Man and hat have been inseparable ever since.
Appropriated from traditional American Indian clothing, the coonskin cap served as hunting apparel for 18th and 19th century European settlers in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee, Crockett’s home state. Most likely, it was worn for warmth as well as ornamentation, making use of a whole raccoon’s fur, including its head and tail. These hardy origins make the coonskin cap an apt symbol for the American West, evoking the sense of rugged self-reliance romanticized by stories such as Davy Crockett.
Ann Miller, a dancer, singer, and actress renowned for her 1940s and '50s Hollywood musicals, starred in a 1971 commercial for Heinz's Great American Soup, where she demonstrated her tap-dancing skills on an eight-foot soup can. Her outfit consisted of a red satin leotard decorated with sequins and rhinestones and this silk, star-studded top hat. If such an ostentatious, flagrantly patriotic ensemble seems out of place in the cynical Vietnam War period, it perfectly matches the jaunty tone of director Stan Freberg's commercial, intended as a parody of the musical spectacles that Miller specialized in during her film career.
Bowers observed that Miller's hat recalls the iconic Uncle Sam hat. "It immediately tells the audience that this is an American dancer," he said.
J. R. Ewing, the ambitious oil tycoon at the center of CBS's 1978–1991 prime time soap opera Dallas, wore this feathered cowboy hat as a statement. Besides associating him with the loner heroes of Western lore, it emphasizes his status as a citizen of Texas and a patriarch, helping set him apart from other people.
"The hat is like his crown because it's a stoop with a brow of feathers around the crown and makes him look sort of like a king," Bowers said. "The character who wears that is someone who blazes trails."
No image of Indiana Jones is complete without two accessories: the bullwhip and the hat. Who could forget the moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Harrison Ford's daredevil archaeologist reaches under a closing door at the last minute to grab his dropped felt fedora? Like Davy Crockett, Indiana Jones is an explorer, venturing into uncharted territory, and his well-worn hat reflects that adventure-seeking spirit.
"It certainly allows him to have the sweep of a hero," Bowers said. Probable influences include the headgear of safari leaders and comic strip detectives, both indicative of Indiana Jones's pulpy origins.
Not long ago, the museum acquired a fedora worn by Don Draper in AMC's other critically acclaimed series, Mad Men. In stark contrast to Jones's, which complements his rough-and-tumble lifestyle, Draper's conveys an air of professionalism, especially accompanied by a trench coat. It would've been part of everyday attire for a middle-class man in the 1960s, when the show takes place.
The Mad Men era also heralded the decline of hats in American fashion, the moment they went from necessities to embellishments.
"The 1960s advocated a casual approach to life, less structure," Bowers explained. "Now [hats are] just one extra thing to carry. There is a degree of formality that's gone from society. Just like women always wore white gloves in the late 1950s/early 1960s, that's gone with the loosening of American culture, taking away the sense of pomp and circumstance and ceremony."
Even as relics, though, hats reveal a great deal about American culture: what our values are, who we regard as heroes, and how we see ourselves. They are symbols of our identities, both individual and collective.
Amy Woolsey is an intern in the Office of Communications and Marketing.
National Museum of American History