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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

July 04, 1993|Charles Perry

THE MAN IN THE BOWLER HAT: His History and Iconography by Fred Miller Robinson (University of North Carolina Press: $24.95; 216 pp.). This book starts out talking about all the mysterious business with bowler hats in the plays of Samuel Beckett, which sounds as if we're in for some fun. But when the author starts quoting Roland Barthes and talking about the place of the hat in "the grammar of costume," we know what we've actually got on our hands: a great big academic waffle, a ponderous layer of supposition erected on a couple of flimsy metaphors.

We get the bowler as symbol of the machine age--though it was invented for use on horseback (where it is still worn); or the bowler as symbol of middle-class mentality (there's something to that, as to many of Robinson's ideas, but he characteristically ignores the fact that the bowler just suited the new tonsorial style of beardlessness better than the top hat).

The text proceeds in the dreaded academic manner of belaboring the obvious while presuming the dubious. Robinson has interesting things to say about Magritte, but rather obtuse things to say about Laurel and Hardy. His section on Beckett, like much else, is vitiated by his view of the bowler as uniform and undifferentiated (so it can express "a modern consciousness: the intimate self as something endlessly reproducible," whatever that could mean). However, the 52 photos in this book show that the bowler was not uniform; many styles were available. The bowler could be chosen to fit the individual wearer's face as well as or better than any previous hat.

On the next to last page of this terribly airless book (two thirds of the extensive bibliography is either art criticism and cultural history), Robinson speaks of the bowler's "ability to free itself from all but the most vestigial of its references." Now he tells us. Some waffles are dome-shaped, with narrow, curly brims.

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