Stovepipes Are Cool: A Potted History of the Doctor and His Hats

Today, if you didn’t already know, is Wear A Hat Day. We’ll cover it below, and there are links at the end, but it’s important it’s given due prominence, which is why it’s mentioned here.

There’s a bit in the second Indiana Jones film I always liked. It comes when the characters are escaping from a maze of traps, hazards and armed guards. Dr Jones manages to dive under a descending door seconds before it closes, and then almost loses his entire right arm in the process of retrieving that iconic Fedora, which has fallen off in the scramble to escape. On the face of things it seems ludicrous: why, we may legitimately ask ourselves, would you risk life and (literally) limb for the sake of a hat? And then, of course, we see The Last Crusade, and we learn just how important the hat is to him.

You could suggest there’s a bit of retconning going on here. The hat is given undue prominence, and thus we fill in the backstory to explain why the intrepid adventurer treats it the way he does. Or perhaps Lucas always knew this was coming, the way he ‘always knew’ how Star Wars was going to pan out. Either way, it smacks of overthinking. There is a similar meme doing the rounds in which Moffat explains why the Doctor is so atypical of the usual hero mould, and why this is so important. “When they made this particular hero” Moffat explains, “they didn’t give him a gun – they gave him a screwdriver to fix things. They didn’t give him a tank or a warship or an X-wing fighter – they gave him a box from which you can call for help. And they didn’t give him a superpower or pointy ears or a heat-ray – they gave him an extra HEART. They gave him two hearts! And that’s an extraordinary thing. There will never come a time when we don’t need a hero like the Doctor.”

Here’s a little fact checking: the screwdriver doesn’t just fix things, it’s also useful for opening doors and blowing stuff up. The police box was supposed to be a disguise, albeit not a very good one, and by the time it became hideously outdated there was no possibility of changing it. And the extra heart was a way of explaining Time Lord physiology – which, in turn, had been invented in order to keep the show going after William Hartnell’s departure. I have forgiven Moffat any number of supposed sins this past year, but when this one does the rounds on Facebook I confess my reaction is to point and laugh.

Still: hats are important to Indiana Jones, and we might suggest, for any number of reasons, that they’re important to the Doctor as well. Clothes maketh the man, supposedly (my father was always quick to point out that it really ought to be ‘manners’) and the Doctor dresses to reflect his character. Sort of. Up to a point. Perhaps it’s more a question of an audience defining the character to fit the costume; normally it works, although there are exceptions. For example, the Eighth Doctor dresses like an Edwardian gentleman, at least until the Time War, but he really doesn’t behave like one, unless the occasion calls for it. And sometimes it does, but it seems like unnecessary shoehorning to describe him as befits his appearance – when the truth is that, having had most of his adventures off screen, he is in many ways the most chameleonic of all incarnations.

We might also suggest that the Doctor’s changing relationship with his headgear reflects cultural shifts: Doctor Who was launched in the early 1960s at a time when the wearing of hats was far more commonplace. Thus Hartnell is often seen wearing a hat simply because that’s what you did; Ian was a science teacher, but at the risk of being a little too in touch with my inner Python, had the Doctor picked up a London stockbroker or chartered accountant the scene might have been quite different. Times change, but historically, of course, the absence of some sort of headgear was seen as utterly disrespectful – “Alack, bareheaded?” mutters a disguised Duke of Kent to the maddened King Lear when discovering him on the moor during one of the storm scenes, and he’s not just talking about the rain that’s pelting down.

Certainly the First Doctor’s hats are largely functional: Panamas for the sun, Astrakhans for the snow, with occasional deviations (well, there’s no other reason to watch The Reign of Terror). Hats are a part of his get-up and point, if anything, to a sense of vulnerability the programme would later eschew: the Doctor is an old man in need of a hat, as opposed to the likes of Ian, Steven and Ben, who do not need one. It’s certainly a marked contrast to Spearhead, in which a recently regenerated Third Doctor dons a hat to accompany the outfit he’s borrowed from the hospital – only to promptly discard it afterwards, for no good reason.

(Why doesn’t Pertwee wear a hat, anyway? He cuts a dashing figure in that cape he wore in Axos; wouldn’t it have been perfect if he’d topped it off with a Homburg or something? Did he have a thing about messing up his hair? Was it windy out on those location shoots? Or is it that he spends so much time running across catwalks and in and out of speedboats they kept losing them? Are there riverbeds in Worcestershire replete with stray Trilbies? It’s an inconsequential point, but I think we should be told.)

It’s Baker, of course, who is perhaps most famous for his headgear: after a couple of false starts (oh, how I wish he’d kept that Viking helmet) the Doctor finds a hat he likes and largely sticks with it, although he is dandy in a deerstalker and dabbles with cultural appropriation in the Zygon story. Still, it is the Fedora for which he is remembered, and said Fedora comes in handy no end of times, notably when the Doctor needs a convenient object with which to blindside an approaching Dalek (that year’s Hand of Fear moment). I’m sure there were other similar instances, but Google is telling me nothing, so perhaps you would be so good as to leave your own personal favourites in the comments box, along with adulating praise. Still, once again we have a character who wears a hat simply because he wears a hat, although I sometimes wonder whether the Fedora featured a set of curlers under the brim that kept Baker’s curls permanently bouncy and voluminous: there is probably fan fiction that features this very concept, probably as a vital plot point. The key takeaway is that he managed to be a Bohemian both on set and off it, and one suspects that the outfits Baker wore in the Soho pubs probably weren’t terribly different to his studio get-up. In fact, says The Doctor Who Site, dressing up as the Fourth Doctor is “easy. Wear your granddad’s clothes…”

Doctors often convey themselves as much through body language as through spoken dialogue. Bryant and (Colin) Baker effectively reinterpreted the opening scenes of The Mysterious Planet purely through they way they acted them, meaning that most of the animosity from the previous series was lost. Pertwee was the master of the understated pause (not to mention the gurning, but let’s not start on that or we’ll be here all day). Nonetheless it is the tipping of one’s hat, in the case of Davison and McCoy, that becomes a defining characteristic in the twilight years of the 1980s. What’s most curious is the way the same action manages to convey utterly different sentiments depending on who’s doing it: Davison’s boyish charm, the brash young vet given a sports car he doesn’t quite know how to drive, versus the sly sense of omniscience that accompanies McCoy’s gesture – a measure of how far the Doctor has come in a comparatively short space of time. Regular DWC readers may recall that Battlefield is one of my favourite stories, if only because the hat tip that occurs during the climactic sword fight speaks volumes. Sometimes less is more.

While we’re on the subject, it’s notable that while the Seventh Doctor adorns a deep brown jacket in Season 26, ostensibly to mark a ‘darkening’ personality, his hat doesn’t change at all. Or does it? Well, yes, the band switches from red to dark brown. It’s so subtle you’d be forgiven for missing it. Actually I did miss it; I had to look it up. Are we really supposed to attribute this to symbolism? Or did they find the red clashed with the jacket? And come to think of it, is it possible to talk about this without also imagining the conversation between McCoy and the costume department where he presumably couldn’t decide whether he preferred the rrrrred or the brrrrown?

Despite their frequent appearances, hats haven’t really been a part of the Nu Who ensemble. More often than not they serve simply as props, something you can blast into oblivion or throw through a CGI hole – or something that you notice precisely because it looks so incongruous. The moment in which Tennant briefly adorns the fez in Day of the Doctor is a genuinely wonderful piece of television because – almost impossibly – he looks even more ridiculous than Smith did. It’s just about the closest the Doctors get to cosplay, unless you count post-regeneration episodes.

We may make exceptions for The Snowmen, but that features a Doctor who is behaving largely out of character anyway, and thus the rumpled top hat he wears for the episode’s first half speaks volumes: a man with so much on his mind he needs an extra container. At the risk of over-analysis (but that’s what we do here, surely?) the act of shedding it coincides with the moment we see the Doctor restored to his former glory – resplendent, at home in the TARDIS and wearing a proper smile on his face for the first time that episode. It’s a shame, in a way, that it has to be interrupted by the deerstalker he wears halfway through, in an obvious nod to Moffat’s Sherlock fans that can’t help but seem rather off kilter.

And yet, for all this current frivolity, it is Troughton who is the king of hats, and The Doctor Who Mind Robber has very helpfully collected them all – even if (by their own admission) they play fast and loose with the definition of ‘hat’. It’s no great secret that the stovepipe he wore in Power of the Daleks was very nearly a permanent costume feature, although it was sensibly set to one side along with Troughton’s idea that he should perform the role in blackface wearing a turban. Instead the Second Doctor is graced with an almost eclectic selection of headgear, according to circumstances, climate and his comparative desire to dress up as an elderly woman. (“I’ve never seen go for food like this before,” remarks Ben in The Underwater Menace. “It’s usually hats.”) For the First Doctor, clothes were largely an irrelevance; for his successor they become a tool and a distraction – the ability to distract one’s enemies, and oneself – and the acquisition of a new head is the perfect excuse to unpack the dressing up box. (We rarely stoop to cliche here at the DWC, but if we did, this would be the part where I use the words ‘cosmic hobo’ and you all roll your eyes.)

In all seriousness: we’re talking about this because Thursday is Wear A Hat Day – an event organised by a UK-based charity designed to promote awareness of brain tumours, which (according to reports) receive just one per cent of the money available for cancer research. There are reasons for this: funding, supposedly, is allocated according to the quality of the research, which may or may not be applicable in this case. But however you do the maths, one per cent doesn’t seem very much, given how indiscriminately – and suddenly – a brain tumour may strike, so any way we can raise awareness is good.

Which is why, come Thursday morning, I’ll be out on the school run in my Trilby – the one that makes me look, I’m told, a little like Judge Danforth. I bought it at a local festival a couple of years ago and it goes both with the overcoat I wear in the winter and the poncho I bring out for those chilly August evenings. And since you ask, it does embarrass the kids, but it’s in a good cause, and thus I don’t care. I invite you to join me, in whatever capacity you deem fitting; the kids are simply going to have to deal with it. At least it’s not a fez.

For more information on Wear A Hat Day, including fundraising initiatives and the research it supports, visit Brain Tumour Research.