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The making of a hat-wearing legend: the Monkees' Mike Nesmith

Rebecca C Tuite
08 November 2012

The Monkees were known for their colourful style, and guitarist Mike Nesmith for his woolly hat in particular. Fashion historian Rebecca C Tuite gives a short history of a hat-wearing icon

In the first half of the 1960s, bands such as The Beatles and The Who showed just how important a definitive style could be. As The Who's Pete Townshend explained, 'Girls came to see [us] because of various things people in the group wear. John's jacket and medals, my jackets and shirts made out of flags, and Keith, who wears sort of pop art T-shirts made out of targets and hearts... We get a lot of audience this way.'

In 1965, two US TV producers set about creating America's response to the British invasion: The Monkees. They wanted their protégés to have their own colourful style, unlike the urban, monochromatic threads of The Beatles. Costume designer Gene Ashman credits the birth of their look to the band's guitarist Mike Nesmith. When Ashman made up a shirt, and Nesmith liked it, Ashman knew the style would work: 'And by him liking it, the other kids liked it.'

Nesmith himself was noted for his woolly hat. The bobble hat (as it's known in Britain) originated in Nordic countries as a functional piece of outdoor attire. In Britain it was a symbol of working-class society and a fixture in the football stands. As such, it became a casual and classless accessory for fashionable young men who wanted to seem 'anti-fashion' — a movement in the late 1960s and early 70s whereby the meanings ascribed to clothing were often subverted, and the definition of 'fashionable' was constantly challenged.

So Nesmith's choice of hat shows how young Americans were influenced by British trends at the time. Born in Dallas, he was as taken by the British Invasion as any other young American man of the time. He gravitated towards this very British mix of mod style and anti-fashion. Perhaps Nesmith got some tips from his (late) British bandmate Davy Jones. When Nesmith wore the green wool hat with a bobble 
(and button details) to his audition, the producers forgot his name but remembered his headgear.

Most accounts simply say his choice was practical: he wanted to keep his long hair out of his eyes while he rode his bike. That it became his trademark (producers wanted to call him 'The Hat' in the show) shows their and Nesmith's media savvy. The hat was rolled off the production line in a variety of colourways to appeal to as many young fans as possible. Of course, they were all covered with band logos.

So Nesmith's bobble hat went from being a quirky accessory to a mass-produced fashion statement in both the UK and the US. It melded the worlds of media, music and fashion. By the time the Monkees split in 1971, Nesmith, keen to re-emerge as a serious musician, was heartily sick of it.

Rebecca C Tuite is a fashion historian and author of Vassar Style: Fashion, Feminism and 1950s American Media.The Monkees begin a short US tour this month. Visit monkees.com.