I went to see Alice in Wonderland the other day. Everyone said how bored they were by it – one friend of mine actually fell asleep – but I have to confess, I found myself really intrigued by the Mad Hatter’s attachment to his hat. Yes, he’s a Hatter, of course he loves his hat – he knows exactly how much work and love and care went into making it – but surely he’s made hundreds, thousands of hats. Why is this one so important?
By strange coincidence (or is it the universe nudging me to write this post? See this post for more on ‘coincidence’) I happened to be reading about hats the following day in The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer – a brilliantly enlightening sweep across American photography, which clumps all sorts of photos together under marvellously approachable themes like benches, fences, hands and … hats.
Dyer reckons ‘the story of the Depression can be told quite simply through photographs of men’s hats’. He actually means through photographs of men in hats (important distinction this, as we shall see …) Hats, he says, before America’s Great Depression, are a symbol of affluence and democracy; men wearing them are ‘brimful of hope and expectation’. During the Depression, the relative batteredness of a man’s hat reflects his downtrodden state. Wearing one’s heart on one’s hat rather than on one’s sleeve, I suppose.
Dyer uses Dorothea Lange’s photograph White Angel Bread Line to illustrate this. The fedora belonging to the man in the centre, with his back to the crowd, is far more bedraggled than anyone else’s. The man has gone through more than the other men, his hat is worse off, and he has turned his back on the scrum of people jostling, scrabbling for something that’s in short supply. He knows that there isn’t enough for him, his greater experience has resigned him to it. And, as Dyer suggests, that man, and his hat, is ‘like a premonition of what is to come. By the end of the decade everyone else will have followed his example of battered resilience.’
Lange’s photos of men in hats show, Dyer says, the hat to be their shelter, their source of comfort – be it a shade when sitting, waiting indefinitely, at the edge of a field, or a pillow when lying on the pavement of Skid Row in San Francisco. There is something almost unbearably poignant, I think, about these men clinging on to this piece of dignity, still finding comfort in it, when everything else has gone.
What if we look at the Mad Hatter in this light? Ok, it’s not 1930s America, but it is a place going through an undoubtedly hard time. Wonderland (or ‘Underland’ in the film) is under the tyrannous rule of the Red Queen. The Hatter, who used to work for the White Queen, is now unemployed and there is nothing for him to do other than take tea. Remember his joy, in the film, when the Red Queen gets him to make hats for her – ‘it’s so good to be practising my trade again,’ he gushes to Alice. Work, even if it is for the enemy, is better than no work at all. If this weren’t enough to suggest that Underland is undergoing some sort of Depression, then what about the more literal fact that the Hatter is, well, depressed – Johnny Depp isn’t just mad in the film, he is most definitely sad. The hat is his reminder of happier times, of when he danced the futterwack (his ‘happy dance’), for example. He refuses to be parted from it, even when the Cheshire Cat asks him, even when about to be beheaded – perhaps not taking his hat off to the Red Queen is also a mark of disrespect, or a premonition of his imminent escape, that he won’t soon be in the presence of death.
The Hatter is inseparable from his hat, just as the men of America’s Great Depression kept their hats on even when reduced to sleeping on the pavement. Hanging on their hats, they all refuse to give up on the memory of good times, on the hope for those good times to return.
Tellingly, after the Depression, hats lose this significance in photography. Dyer uses the example of this untitled photograph by Garry Winogrand from the 1950s to show that by then a hat is just a hat, not something that represents the unfair blows that life has dealt to its wearer. The man on the right represents the 1930s, the hat-stand on the left represents the 1950s and the future of photography. The hat is no longer on a man’s head; it is dehumanised. As Dyer says, ‘the photographers of the new generation will describe a hat because it just happens to be somewhere’.
Perhaps, at the end of the film, once the Jabberwocky has been slain and the White Queen rules again, the Hatter will be able to see his trusted hat as just another hat, an optional appendage. Perhaps he will take his hat off to Alice, acknowledging his respect for her triumphant battle. And perhaps, let’s hope, in the happier times to come, he won’t hasten to put it back on.