Brand Loyalty is a column that explores our cultural obsession with brands—like Kanye West’s discovery of Vetements, Prada’s short-lived cellphone, and Kristen Stewart’s favorite Outdoor Voices hat.
The 1990s are an over-examined decade, one whose music, fashion, and film have been run too repeatedly and fervently through the great internet nostalgia machine. Every summer, like clockwork, we numbly nod at the same images of The Talented Mr. Ripley, and every winter we rediscover the oversized bowling shirts of Swingers. But those ten years are nonetheless chock full of what you might call Rosetta Stone Looks: outfits that appear to unlock something magical, that connect our over-analyzed past with our strange present. To find them, you need to move past the well-circulated images that haunt every Instagram archive account—the ones of thinky hunks in Hawaiian shirts, Kurt Cobain in cardigans and dresses, and mussed men in tuxedos innocent to the manicuring whims of celebrity stylists. Instead, you must dip into forgotten filmographies and the wells of old magazines. There you will be richly rewarded with intelligence to decipher our moment: did you know that Eric Clapton invented the way we wear loafers now? Did you know that the sensei minimalism of Lemaire and Jil Sander was invented by a Yugoslavian designer named Zoran? Did you know that Marine Serre’s globalist upcycling methodology was pioneered by the Malian-French brand Xuly.Bet?
And did you know that Christian Slater invented hats?
I’m talking about baseball caps—or what we might call, at least until you finish this article, “dad hats.” It’s true that men have worn baseball caps with outfits since the dawn of time (and by “the dawn” of “time” I mean “about the ’50s” of “this century”). But on a recent Getty Images binge, I discovered photo after photo of Christian Slater wearing baseball caps, and I began to understand this humble hat in a new way. What we have come to brusquely call the dad hat can be so much more. What we have reduced to a token of suburban dadhood, called upon to add a mark of humility to any outfit, is much more powerful, or at least way cooler, than that. More than Ray-bans, the tuxedo, or a leather jacket, the ballcap is the foremost symbol of male celebrity.
And it wasn’t just Slater. If you were famous in the early ’90s, the baseball cap was the most important thing in your life. Seriously: with the paparazzi industry newly booming, the baseball cap was a disguise that didn’t try too hard, and a shield against most photographer’s angles. Of course, as huge sunglasses would show a decade later, anything designed to hide celebrity instead highlights it. It is therefore the most glamorous accessory a man can own.
This, not a traumatic relationship with father figure style, is what we reach for now when we reach for a baseball cap.
As Christian Slater’s baseball cap brother in arms Leonardo DiCaprio knows, the celebrity baseball cap is a certain kind of hat. But if DiCaprio has resigned himself to a life of black and navy caps, Slater spent the ’90s approaching the sublime.
Slater has opened up to me an entire universe of hat semantics. It’s like I scaled a giant dome and came down the other side to find an edenic, endless brim filled with all kinds of hats: motorcycle hats (Chrome Hearts!), New Age hats, entertainment law firm hats, hats that look like you just woke up for a minute in the first-class cabin of a transatlantic flight, hats with quixotic messages like “Q-MAN,” hats that promote the legendary 1991 rematch between Mike Tyson and Donovan “Razor” Ruddock. Hats that celebrate the second greatest Christmas film after Die Hard—Die Hard II—and hats that speak to the fraternal experience of gluttonous glory foregrounded by competitive sports that can only be found at Brother Jimmy’s BBQ. Hats that urge us to save wolves, and hats that honor small, well-regarded liberal arts colleges in Minnesota. Yes, like any man with a “thing,” Slater continues to wear hats to this day. But the truest expression came in the ’90s.
Slater wore them with suits, with jackets and jeans, with vests, with Hawaiian shirts. He wore them with otherwise totally unremarkable outfits and with outfits that you will spend hours trying to recreate. And in every case, they elevated things to a strange, personal realm of cool.
Slater’s hats show how rich and expressive the wearing of the simple baseball cap can be—as rich and expressive as the almighty graphic T-shirt, and yet far more potent in its messaging. “Life Is Good,” says Christian Slater’s hat. Life Is Good, I used to think, was a brand for deluded dudes who think if everyone in the world could just sit in an adirondack chair for five minutes, we could solve world anxiety. I still think that, but I see Slater not endorsing this lifestyle but merely taking its mantra along for the ride: Christian Slater’s life is, indeed, good. If to wear a T-shirt is to rep a brand or a band, to wear a hat is merely to mingle with some other power. It’s an allegiance versus a full-throated endorsement. The hat is shading your face and protecting your luscious locks (and maybe even guarding you from prying photographers), after all. The hat is a two-way street, whereas the T-shirt just lives rent-free on the billboard space that is your chest.
Now I have done precisely what I arrived here criticizing: I am overthinking hats from the ’90s. But when I look at Christian Slater’s exquisite collection of baseball hats, I wonder if they are the one thing in the world worth overthinking.