Should I Take My Hat Off at a Restaurant?

Dear Helena,
I was brought up to remove my hat whenever I was indoors. Nowadays, I often see young people eating out at restaurants wearing all manner of hats. Have manners changed?
—Old-Fashioned Gent

Dear Old-Fashioned Gent,
You're correct that, traditionally, etiquette dictated that men remove their hats in restaurants. The reasoning was that a man's hat was designed to protect him from the elements, so it might be wet or dirty, says Jane Smith, who designs period hats for British theater and film. Women, on the other hand, traditionally kept their hats on when dining out. Their hats were designed to be unique and eye-catching, and were usually attached to their hair with a hatpin, so removing them would have been impractical and might have dislodged the women's coiffures.

These days, whether it's appropriate to wear your hat in a restaurant depends on the hat, not on your gender. Let me explain.

There are two types of hats. The first is a statement hat, chosen to draw attention to the wearer, such as a modern fishnet turban or a beautiful vintage cloche with an elegant hatpin. The second type is a comfort hat, designed to deflect attention from the wearer, like an old baseball cap that you wear to hide the fact that you haven't washed your hair for three days. One is an aesthetic flourish; the other is a security blanket.

Your comfort hat may be acceptable in a coffeehouse, diner, or other casual setting, but if you're going out to a more formal dinner, you should leave it at home, the same way you should change out of your sweatpants.

A statement hat, on the other hand, is perfectly appropriate in a restaurant. You should not remove it, any more than you should remove your shoes at a party: Doing either could ruin your whole look. If the hat is a signature accessory, removal could even precipitate a minor identity crisis, or at least make the wearer rather uncomfortable. "I feel like something's missing; I honestly feel very vulnerable," explains Evan Derkacz, an editor for Religion Dispatches who wears a 1930s newsboy cap every day and hates to remove it when dining out.

People like Derkacz don't have much to worry about; nowadays, few restaurants would dare to ask a customer to modify his or her dress in any way. "Especially on the West Coast, the dress code has gotten very casual," says the appropriately named Karen Hatfield, co-owner of Hatfield's Restaurant in Los Angeles. Far from being a faux pas, she actually considers it a good thing if you are wearing a statement hat.

"I'm almost happy when I see a hat ... because it means they put some thought into their outfit and they're [probably] not wearing flip-flops." Hatfield will take a hat over a pair of shorts any day. "Most men cannot pull off shorts," she says. There's no such thing as statement shorts. Yet.

You can browse all of Helena's Table Manners columns by topic here. Follow CHOW on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook.