L.A.’s dad hat obsession is the city’s biggest experiment in being totally washed

Illustration for Trend Analysis: Dad hats for the Image magazine, issue 03.
(Tolga Tarhan/For The Times)
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This story is part of Parents Are Cool!, the third issue of Image, which explores the myriad ways in which L.A. parents practice the craft of care. See the full package here.

Is there a more aptly named item of clothing than the dad hat? Apparel companies love to give cheeky names to their wares: “boyfriend shirts,” “mom jeans,” etc. But the dad hat is more evocative of a vibe, a generational aesthetic and a vague sense of giving up than any of those other contenders. Dad hats are the universal symbol of the person who’s simply out of time: time to think, time to care and time to prepare.

The dad hat is named as it is because fathers slowly but surely lose their sense of fashion. We drop the pretense of trying to impress strangers and submit to a fully functional idea of how to dress. Tevas are comfortable. These shorts have an elastic waistband. If I wear a hat, I don’t have to wear as much sunscreen. Ah, the joys of knowing sublime practicality.

But how much of life in Los Angeles is strictly practical? This is a city with a significant population of people with an unnatural aversion to the very idea of getting older. There are entire industries dedicated to lifting, tucking, sucking and sculpting the human body to more accurately resemble one not falling apart slowly over time. Why, then, would anyone be caught wearing a hat with the word “dad” associated with it?

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I wear a dad hat pretty much any occasion when I’m too busy to make any enlightened sartorial choices. As a father, that means just about anytime I have to interact with my son for long periods of time. The mere act of parenting is so grueling, messy and devoid of vanity that putting together a fire fit seems antithetical to the job at hand. There’s a whole galaxy of bodily fluids for you to get accustomed to when you become a parent: the poop, the pee, the mystery concoctions that make you send a photo to your group chats to ask, “Is this normal?”

Parenting in L.A. is even more harrowing because of all the myriad outdoor activities we subject ourselves to — hiking, surfing, attempting to find street parking in Koreatown. That’s not to say that all dads are schlubs with no discernable ability to put together an outfit. Some of the most stylish men I know in Los Angeles are dads. It’s just that, well, sometimes you must admit your Our Legacy camp collar shirt from Mohawk General Store is going to get Nutella smeared on it.

When it’s simply too difficult to look good, you can always rely on the dad hat — unstructured and usually visibly weathered. It doesn’t stand out or draw attention to itself. It’s a comforting, utilitarian device for hiding if you’re famous enough to need such things. During the worst months of the pandemic, dad hats also kept our long, scraggly hairs in check during emotionally and physically fraught outings to the grocery store or the post office. Dad hats serve a purpose, like a lathe or an Allen wrench. You probably have one lying around just in case. I keep mine tucked away in an overflowing, awkwardly shaped plastic container under my bed. You could reasonably try to shove one in a pants pocket if you really had to.

In the same way that Crocs or Birkenstocks have taken over the footwear conversation the last few years, the dad hat has eclipsed all its competitors simply by being easy to put on and fun to wear. I guess I see dad hats as sort of like socks or underwear in that they are necessary for life but don’t require any sort of care or attention. Dad hats are so adaptable and convenient that they’ve been wrestled away from the stodgy clichés that gave it its name and gone mainstream.

Look around. They’re almost inescapable. Dad hat usage seems to have exploded — especially in the last few years. More and more people have found utility in the unassuming accessory. Maybe you’re one of the thousands of people around Los Angeles who don’t have children but have accepted the nonjudgmental embrace of the dad hat. Good for you. I’d hector you for appropriating my culture, but these pages are a safe space for sartorial experimentation.

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What you’re experimenting with is, of course, being totally washed. How does it feel? Probably pretty good. Some might call the wearing of a floppy canvas or cotton hat adorned with a cheesy logo “giving up,” but for the rest of us, it’s a convenient, comfortable way to live your life. When you round into your 20s, part of the job is trying on as many personas as possible in the hopes that you’ll figure out who you want to be for the rest of your life. So, why not try on being a dad?

It’s a curious thing for a metropolitan area that’s so often accused of being obsessed with youth to be accumulating the signifiers of musty age. Those Tevas I was snickering about earlier? They actually look great. My favorite pair of Marni trousers has an elastic waistband. Dad hats are a go-to fashion accessory for even the snobbiest among us. Why did so many young people decide they wanted to look old all of a sudden? In GQ, style writer Jason Diamond called this phenomenon “bistro vibes,” the need for upwardly mobile individuals to dress like their parents. It’s an attempt to capture the casual sophistication of Hollywood in the early ’90s — Spago, double-breasted blazers and convertible BMWs. A time when men would wear straight-leg jeans on the red carpet. A time for dad hats.

What’s truly remarkable about the dad hat is that it seems to cross demographics, cultural divides and all the other things that delineate who’s who in Los Angeles. Few people do more for the cachet of the dad hat than celebrated young actor Timothée Chalamet. Chalamet is frequently on the bleeding edge of menswear, and one fit pic from him could launch a thousand blog posts (and a million memes). Dad hats have become a celebrity staple at events that require a more casual, approachable look: sporting events, coffee runs and the third Sunday of the month when you and your ex do the kid handoff at the Brentwood Country Mart. Is Chalamet responsible for young people across the region choosing to look like they have a mortgage and a 10 a.m. tee time? It’s possible, but the legacy of the fashionable dad hat goes back at least a few more years.

My go-to L.A. fashion: going topless in my “hot girl” bra

It’s unlikely that anyone could trace the dad hat phenomenon in Los Angeles back to a tidy origin story, but it would be a dereliction of duty to not mention one of the most seminal fashion moments of the last decade. The 2016 Yeezy Season 3 show at Madison Square Garden is like the first Sex Pistols concert for 21st century fashion. Everyone wants to say they were there and that it inspired the entire trajectory of style for years. The Kardashians. Virgil Abloh. Anna Wintour. For some reason, Rosie O’Donnell. Everyone who matters now was there then. Lights, lasers and a “Life of Pablo” listening party cemented Kanye West as the most powerful multimedia artist of his time. The pop culture world seemed to stop in order to indulge Kanye in the deepest way possible. It was a showcase for cult of personality, commerce and the ascendancy of streetwear as the most vital segment of the high-end clothing industry. The red caps and the presidential campaign were still to come but back then, his reputation as the king of style was relatively unsullied. What I’ll always remember from that day was what was on Kanye West’s head. Through the whole show, he sat away from the stage, feeling the vibe and raising his hands like an overwhelmed Sunday churchgoer. The whole time, he was rocking the now-iconic Yeezy dad hat. From there, the fashion world took notice.

Just about every major house makes some kind of casual, distressed baseball hat, and they’re all usually more expensive than they have to be. Maison Margiela offers one that looks like it was eaten by rats during a long journey at sea. In 2017, Balenciaga’s Bernie Sanders-inspired dad hat changed the game, making a variety of oblique statements about old people, politics and commerce. From then on, the dad hat was not just the simplest way to get dressed, it was a vessel for the wearer’s personal worldview. Like the graphic tee before it, the dad hat has evolved into the surest way to broadcast your tastes, your opinions and your pet peeves. It’s not quite a replacement for a personality, but it could be if you wanted to try.

Dad hats needed to say something other than which sports team was your favorite. As restaurants and bars struggled through 2020’s COVID-19 restrictions around L.A., merchandise such as branded dad hats became a viable option for making up for lost revenue. I have a dad hat honoring Silver Lake’s Freedman’s, plus various items from Fairfax staple Genghis Cohen, Uncle Paulie’s and the Los Feliz wine bar Covell. If Philippe the Original started selling a dad hat, I’d absolutely buy one. By advertising through your clothes, you hope that thing you’re supporting actually survives the perilousness of our modern age.

In a historical moment where nothing is assured and upheaval is around every corner, dad hats are just another comfort to cling to in an uncomfortable world. If you’re a parent, it’s a bit of protection through the urban malaise of childrearing in L.A. If you’re not, it’s a tiny bit of nostalgia. Or, maybe it’s just a way to avoid drying your hair. Whatever it is for you, the dad hat is as essential to life in Los Angeles as an air conditioner.