“I like your hat. It reminds me of the rugs my grandma used to make. Did you make it yourself?” So said a woman behind me in the grocery store checkout line in reference to my woven totem topper recently.

“That’s no hat,” I said in mock indignation as I raised the cap to reveal a circle of pattern baldness, “It’s a cheap toupee. Also handy as a potholder if there’s not one available. Very unique — woven by my artist friend, Holly Reed, from Arcadia.” She smiled … and looked at me a little quizzically.

Over the years I’ve gotten into countless conversations that began with some variation of that same question whether I’m wearing a woven Holly creation, a Greek fisherman’s cap, a straw Dobbs, a wide-brimmed Stetson, an Italian fedora, a tweed newsboy or a Resistol cowboy hat.

Why do they ask? Because hats signify a story. A tale. Mystery. Intrigue. Romance. Adventure. Joy. Heartache. Whimsy.

Driving home from the grocery store listening to KRPS, I heard about an off-Broadway play all about hats. “Crowns” tells the story of six African-American women through the hats they wear to church.

North Carolina photographer Michael Cunningham began taking pictures of women in their hats. His friend, journalist Craig Marberry, thought they should put together a book of the photos and the stories behind them. The tales that Cunningham and Marberry collected were eventually turned into a theater piece by playwright and director Regina Taylor. "Hats reveal and they conceal," Taylor said.

Indeed.

They also have personalities of their own. That is, they say something, not only about the wearer, but independent of them.

This is true of the ‘Gimme Hats’ as well. You know the ones; those given away as promotional items. Year’s back I spied Charles Ales sporting one (that definitely said something about him) as he dished up spaghetti at the Arma American Legion. It was an old A.J. Cripe Town Talk Bread cap.

“I’ll give you fifty cents for that hat!” I offered. He smiled, said, “You like that do ya?” and went on to talk about old A.J. singing “Little Red Fox” on the radio. He later told me he’d been offered $20 for his vintage Town Talk hat. “Don’t sell it,” I advised. “It’s priceless.”

Time was, just about everyone wore a hat, men and women both. But that all changed sometime in late 50s and early 60s from what I can tell. Nonetheless, they still have a place in our language. A PLACE TO HANG YOUR HAT, OLD HAT, PASS THE HAT, TALK THROUGH YOUR HAT, PARTY HAT, THROW YOUR HAT IN THE RING, KEEP IT UNDER YOUR HAT, WEARING TWO HATS, THE GUYS IN THE WHITE HATS, PULL SOMETHING OUT OF YOUR HAT and HAT TRICK are just a few of the evocative slang expressions we use in reference to hats.

Another thing I like about wearing a hat is that they can be used for a variety of purposes. I’ve filled mine with blackberries, tomatoes and popcorn. Remember the cowboys at the movies dipping water from a stream with their hat to give their horse a drink?

My grandpa Matt, who wore a broad brimmed hat whenever he left the house, used it to confuse unruly dogs. If a mean-looking one started toward him, he would take off his hat and stare the dog down while holding the brim between his teeth. Worked every time I saw him do it.

I must admit I feel a certain kinship with other hat wearers. I’m drawn to them in some way that goes beyond words. It’s like, “If you’re a hat person, you’re all right with me.”

Just the opposite is true for some people. A few years back a woman wrote me an appreciative note in which she said that she’d mentioned something in a recent column of mine to one of her friends and the woman had replied emphatically, “Oh no. I never read him. He wears a hat!”

About all I know to say to that is, “Ma’am, my hat’s off to ya.”

— This column first appeared 12-16-02. J.T. Knoll is prevention and wellness coordinator at Pittsburg State University. He also operates Knoll Training and Consulting Services in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or jtknoll@swbell.net.