Bono and his former stylist are in court to claim ownership of the singer's legendary Stetson. Male millinery is now the ultimate fashion statement, and the days when it smacked of a life of conformity are long gone, says Stuart Husband
When is a hat not a hat? When it's an iconic-ironic sartorial manifestation of your personal and artistic philosophy. This, at any rate, is Bono's explication for the significance of his Stetson, which he's trying to wrest back from U2's erstwhile stylist Lola Cashman in an ongoing court case. According to his testimony, it was this headgear, rather than any amount of keening vocals and guitar arpeggios, that propelled the group into the enormo-dome stratosphere.
"I dressed like Nana Mouskouri before," confessed Bono. "She [Cashman] had a very good eye, and I'd already had the idea of making the Stetson a trademark. It's an American icon and it was part of my idea of how I wanted to present myself to the world in an ironic sense. Plus I thought it could be archived in the future." It seems a crushing amount of cultural weight - part-semiotic determinant, part holy relic - for a high-crowned, wide-brimmed accessory to bear.
But Stetsongate is just the latest flashpoint in the vexed history of male millinery. Since the hat lost its status as the exemplar of worker-drone conformity it's been reincarnated as its swinging opposite. "These days, any man wearing a hat is perceived to be making some kind of fashion statement," says the milliner Stephen Jones. "It's become a way of standing out from the crowd. Even the closest thing men have to a utilitarian hat - the baseball cap - is a way of advertising affiliations."
No one knows this socio-cultural-stylistic minefield better than William Hague. His decision to wear a Hague-branded baseball cap to the Notting Hill Carnival was, commentators agreed, the chief reason for his tenure as Tory leader being short-lived. His attempt to be "down" with the kids was ridiculed.