Fashions change all the time. From the dapper charcoal grey suits and ties of the fifties and sixties to the pastel monstrosities known as leisure suits in the seventies to today’s hoody and pajama pants ensemble, the clothing people cover their nakedness with have evolved quite a bit over the past hundred years or so.
One thing, however, hasn’t changed: committing a fashion faux pas puts one at risk of ridicule and, as we will see, violence. These days the fashion police content themselves with taking online pot shots at the less trendy among us. People of Walmart, for example, is devoted to putting the questionable clothing choices of Wal-Mart shoppers (among other things) up for public mockery.
However, it is rare these days for poor style choices to result in physical assault. And it is unheard of for a fashion faux pas to spark a riot. That wasn’t the case in the early 1900s.
No straw hats after September 15 (for some reason)
Hats were, until the last thirty years or so, staples of a man’s wardrobe. From bowler derbies to pork pies to the iconic fedoras, most men would not be caught dead outside without their lid. And like every other article of clothing, there was an etiquette to wearing them. The rule of thumb for hats was that no man should wear a straw hat after September 15. It isn’t exactly clear why the 15th was chosen; Labor Day would have made more sense, since it is traditionally considered the last day of summer. But, regardless, the day to switch from straw hats to felt was the 15th, and the date was enforced with violence. It was a bit of a game for young men to knock offender’s hats off and stomp them in the street. This activity was chalked up to youthful indiscretion considered mostly harmless. However, in New York in 1922, the harmless pranks got out of hand.
The trouble began on September 13, 1922, which you will note is two days before the traditional transition date. A group of youths decided to start the fun early, and did so by knocking hats off factory worker’s heads in the Mulberry Bend area of Manhattan. After stomping those hats into the street, the groups moved on to the docks. But the dockworkers weren’t going to have any of the youthful shenanigans, and fought back. The fight got ugly, and escalated to the point that it blocked the Manhattan Bridge. Police broke up the melee, but that wasn’t the end of the rioting.
The next night, the youths took to the streets in force, armed with sticks. They broke off into groups and assaulted straw hat wearers who resisted having their hats stomped. Some reports indicate that the youths would form parallel lines in the street and force their victims to run the gauntlet. One man reported that his assailants joined a mob of a thousand youngsters on Amsterdam Avenue. Several men wound up hospitalized in the violence. Also, hat shops in the area were slammed with angry, bare-headed men looking to replace their smashed hats.
Police response to the violence was slow, but that didn’t mean that some officers weren’t swept up in the frenzy. Some plain clothes officers were attacked in the fracas. One police sergeant was assaulted and, when he attempted to catch the culprits, a prankster stuck out his foot and the sergeant found himself in a gutter.
Eventually, though, the riot calmed down. Several rioters paid fines, and a few did jail time. Several people were injured, but luckily no one was killed. The streets of Manhattan were littered with the ruined remains of smashed straw hats
While the Straw Hat Riot of 1922 wasn’t the last of such events, it was certainly the largest. The tradition went on sporadically until the arbitrary transition between felt and straw fell out of fashion, leaving behind this odd footnote in criminal history.
“Straw Hat Riot.” Wikipedia.org. 10 January 2014. Wikipedia. 16 Jan 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straw_Hat_Riot>
“Straw Hat Riots Embroil East Side.” NYTimes.com. 14 September 1922. The New York Times. 16 Jan 2014. Retrieved from: <http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F30C13F73B5D1A7A93C6A81782D85F468285F9>
Peters, Justin. “The 1922 Straw Hat Riot Was One of the Weirdest Crime Sprees in American History.” Slate.com. 3 April 2013. Slate. 16 Jan 2014. <http://www.slate.com/blogs/crime/2013/04/03/straw_hat_riot_remembering_one_of_the_weirdest_crime_sprees_in_american.html>
The Associated Press. “Straw Hat Riots Keeps N.Y.’s Finest Chasing Hoodlums.” The Deseret News. 14 September 1922. Retrieved from: <http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=OaoxAAAAIBAJ&sjid=bNwFAAAAIBAJ&pg=5556,1489569&dq=straw-hat+riot&hl=en>
“The Straw Hat Riots.” The Pittsburgh Press. 15 September 1910. Retrieved from: <http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=sg0bAAAAIBAJ&sjid=4EgEAAAAIBAJ&pg=1666,3136231&dq=straw-hat+riot&hl=en>