Following the rise of the top hat, bowler or derby, Panama, fedora, and flat cap across the nineteenth century, by the first decades of the twentieth century a man could scarcely open his front door, much less appear before a discerning public, without some suitable form of headwear. In the realm of silent comedy, Charlie Chaplin tramped about in a tight tailcoat with a bowler and cane, and Harold Lloyd wore a straw boater over the round horn-rimmed glasses which his success soon turned into a popular fashion accessory.
But just as characteristic was Buster Keaton’s pork pie hat, which he wore from early films like The Goat, The Love Nest, and Sherlock, Jr. all the way to The Railrodder, his last silent picture released more than forty years later. Keaton has been credited with the resurgence of the pork pie hat in the United States in the 1920s. In contrast to the style worn in the middle of the nineteenth century – which typically featured a curved brim, sometimes came with feathers adorning the hatband, and was usually the preserve of women – Keaton’s hat had a rigidly flat brim and a low crown.
Buster Keaton made his own pork pie hats, refashioning them out of Stetsons, and by his own estimation going through thousands over the course of his career. In later years the task of hat making passed on to his wife Eleanor, who used grey fedoras. Interviewed in 1964 at the Movieland Wax Museum, where he was attending the unveiling of his wax likeness, Keaton recalled:
‘In those days, almost every comedian you saw affected a derby hat. Even Harold Lloyd, when he was playing his Lonesome Luke character in 1917, wore a derby – which he later deserted for his signature straw hat and horn-rimmed glasses. So I decided to get a hat that was my very own. I knew straw was too fragile for my kind of antics (straw was fine for vaudeville song-and-dance, but not the movies). So I chose felt and designed this particular porkpie.
I took a good Stetson and cut it down, then I stiffened the brim with sugar water. My recipe calls for three heaping teaspoons of granulated sugar in a teacup of warm water. You wet the top and bottom of the brim, and then smooth it out on a clean, hard surface and let it dry to a good stiffness. I did the earliest ones myself, always – and then I trained my wife. Now she does them for me.
In the old days, the Stetsons cost me $3.50 each. I pay $12.50 for the same one now. It gets to be expensive, as I’ve used up thousands of them through the years. In the first place, I used to do more water stuff – stunts where I got dumped into water – than most comedians. And felt disintegrates if you get it wet enough. So the mortality was high. I was lucky if I only used half a dozen in each picture. Then people want them for souvenirs – they snatch them off my head, so I have to have extras on hand. Then, when I started making feature pictures, they showed them at the biggest city theaters, and always had all the usherettes wearing my porkpie hats – somehow I never had one returned to me!’
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In 2009, a YouTube user called Dr Moon Rat uploaded an excellent – and remarkably simple – guide towards making your own Buster Keaton pork pie hat. All that you need is a soft felt cowboy hat or fedora, a sink full of water, a flat work surface, and a pair of scissors: