The cap may fit — but don’t wear it
A clear frontrunner for 2017 political photo of the year appeared last week. It depicts Jeremy Corbyn stepping out of the loo of a commuter train, wearing a blue suit, safety goggles and what looks like a baseball cap. A tragicomic image for tragicomic times.
Here is leader of the opposition in a globally important country that — by a narrow margin — took a radical political decision that will have consequences on a historic scale. He will lead that opposition, with all odds against him, in an immensely consequential election in June. And here he is, absurdly, stepping out of a toilet looking like some sort of low-rent security agent, casting a suspicious look to his right, alert to Blairist counter-revolutionaries storming out of first class. It makes a powerful metaphor for the dopey incompetence of the global left.
A word should be said in defence of Mr Corbyn here: the cap he is wearing is a piece of safety equipment (a “bump cap”) — hence the goggles. The Labour leader is doing some sort of inspection. So, to his credit, he did not choose his silly-looking lid. All the same, the picture serves as a warning about the acute sartorial dangers of the baseball-style chapeau. Not that one would ever criticise Mr Corbyn for his total lack of style, which is one of his few charms. The point is that any adult who puts on a cap must understand the risk of looking like a clueless doofus. If clueless doofus is your thing, by all means, caps on. If it is not, there are some points to keep in mind.
The main one is that the acceptable time for an adult to wear a baseball cap is when participating in or observing an outdoor activity in which either the eyes or scalp require protection from the sun. The unacceptable times are: all other times. Wearing a baseball cap indoors, or outdoors when sun protection is superfluous, makes everyone look worse than they otherwise would.
There are exceptions to this rule, specifically for the young, the very old, and rap stars. Young people — by which I mean anyone under 30 — can look good in anything, which is one of the main reasons they are so awful. All hats (baseball; cowboy; woolly-with-pom-pom; whatever) look charming rather than ridiculous on people over 80. I have no explanation for this, except that refusal to die puts an attractive patina on everything. Hence Warren Buffett looking perfectly at home doing a television interview wearing a cap with a company logo on it. For rap stars, baseball caps are simply part of the shtick, like gold fronts or pretending to be in a fight with another rap star. The fact that it works for them should not give anyone else ideas.
A gender-specific case that bears mentioning is the woman who wears a baseball cap to cover disheveled hair when going to get coffee first thing in the morning. This is closely related to the case of the female movie star getting coffee in LA while wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, only to find herself photographed for one of those magazines they sell in the checkout line.
In both cases, the cap is not a piece of clothing but a disguise, so all style bets are off. If, on the other hand, a man wears a cap to conceal messy hair, whether seeking coffee or something else, he has selected a hairstyle that requires too much attention, and should have contempt heaped upon him.
The baseball cap is not even entirely safe, stylistically, when out in the sun. This is true in part because it has two common sartorial purposes at which it always fails: giving the wearer a “younger look” or making him look like a “regular guy”. The only thing that has ever, in the history of looks, successfully created a younger look is improved physical fitness. Everything else creates an old person trying to look young and failing.
The bid for regularity is more treacherous still. Of course for Corbyn, whose politics (though he would deny it) mark him out as a zillion miles from the regular guy, any attempt at normality will founder. He is the only person, other than a Breton mariner, who looks anything but pretentious wearing a Breton mariner’s cap. He is plainly bizarre; it is appropriate for his choice of hat to be the same.
Consider President Trump’s red baseball caps. They serve to highlight the fact he is a born-rich real estate magnate. Real suckers for punishment can Google an image of Hillary Clinton wearing a Cubs or Yankees cap, one of her lamer attempts to look like someone who comes from somewhere other than the halls of power. The effect is mortifying, like the famous photo of Mike Dukakis in a tank-gunner’s helmet. Hillary’s husband Bill looked just fine in baseball caps — he once favoured them while out jogging, in short shorts. This is because, despite his brilliance, he is still a seedy guy from Arkansas.
The most famous UK example of this syndrome is William Hague, life peer, former MP, and occasional but infamous wearer of baseball caps. This is a man who gave his first speech before the Conservative party at the age of 16. He would look more natural with a stack of £100 notes on his head than a baseball hat.
It must be said, in fairness, that there is a dilemma for men, in particular, in situations that call for something that does the job of a baseball cap, because the other options are risky, too. In particular, both fedora and panama hats are in constant danger of falling into one of the worst categories of clothing, the self-consciously old-timey. A man in a fedora is a half-step from wearing spats. It is desperately hard to pull off. So what is a man, who knows himself to be neither young nor a regular joe, to do?
Wear the baseball cap is what — until the golf game (soccer match, hike, fishing trip, whatever) is over. Then take the damn thing off.
*This article has been amended to reflect the fact that Mr Corbyn’s hat was worn for safety reasons, and not by choice. Thanks to alert readers for pointing this out.
Photographs: PA; Nati Harnik/AP Photo; Chris Jackson/Getty Images; Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images