Buster Keaton and Jackie Cooper match hats (and expressions) in 1932.

Few things are more precise than the fit of a good hat—the contour, the brim, the insulation (or lack thereof), the dexterity, the elasticity and so on. For Buster Keaton, though, the most important attribute of his iconic porkpie hat was its “mortality.” For more on the matter, we turn it over to Buster himself, as quoted at the Movieland Wax Museum on May 7, 1964.

“In those days, almost every comedian you saw affected a derby hat…”

So I decided to get a hat that was my very own. I knew straw was too fragile for my kind of antics (straw was fine for vaudeville song-and-dance, but not the movies). So I chose felt and designed this particular porkpie.

I took a good Stetson and cut it down, then I stiffened the brim with sugar water. My recipe calls for three heaping teaspoons of granulated sugar in a teacup of warm water. You wet the top and bottom of the brim, and then smooth it out on a clean, hard surface and let it dry to a good stiffness. I did the earliest ones myself, always—and then I trained my wife. Now she does them for me.

In the old days, the Stetsons cost me $3.50 each. I pay $12.50 for the same one now. It gets to be expensive, as I’ve used up thousands of them through the years. In the first place, I used to do more water stuff—stunts where I got dumped into water—than most comedians. And felt disintegrates if you get it wet enough. So the mortality was high.

—C.B.S.

CONTRIBUTORS

  • C. Brian Smith