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Communist leader or fashion icon?

Who knew the Chinese communist leader would go on to become a fashion inspiration?

By CARYN ROUSSEAU, Associated Press
Published May 20, 2006


KANSAS CITY, Mo.

The fashion experts can't decide what they want to call it, but they know it's hot.

The Dutch Boy hat? Not really. The conductor hat? Not quite. The Mao hat - after Chinese communist revolutionary Mao Tse-tung? That's about as close as it gets.

Whatever you call it, the hat with the short brim and soft cloth top has become part of men's fashion - the hipster uniform even - for sale on trendy street corners in New York City and for view on music's of-the-moment rockers like Fall Out Boy lead singer Patrick Stump.

Tyler Thoreson, executive editor at men.style.com, the Internet home of GQ and Details magazines, says he sees it as a chic version of the communist worker hat.

"It fits with that alterna-culture, mass individuality."

The fashion is spreading like a new rendition of Ashton Kutcher's now-infamous trucker hat. And, at about $20, the price is right.

"I think that's part of the appeal," he said. "And it's almost antifashion. This is more Army surplus than ripped from the runway. Half of any of the other stuff a guy's wearing with it is vintage."

Ask a guy wearing a Mao hat why he chose it, and he'll probably stutter a bit and say he thinks it's cool. Mao may be the last thing on his mind.

But the hat traces its roots to the military uniforms of communist revolutionaries who, under Mao, overthrew Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists and established the country's communist government in 1949. Mao himself wore the hats at various times from the 1930s to the 1960s.

The People's Liberation Army wore them as well. Also known as the Red Army, it was formed as an arm of China's Communist Party and today boasts 2.5-million members. Mao's theory on the force? He declared that "power flows from the barrel of a gun." Not the nicest guys here.

The hats were produced in China beginning in the 1930s - in green for the communist People's Liberation Army and in blue as Chinese workers took over the style in later years. The version that Mao wore had a red star, though recent fashion has adapted the hat in all types of materials, colors and prints.

"With the little brim in front it bears a resemblance to more formal military hats," says Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "Since the crown is soft it also has a similarity with various worker hats."

Performers in the 1960s-era classic communist Chinese ballet "Red Detachment of Women" also wore the hats. And the caps were ubiquitous in propaganda posters produced by the tens of thousands during the sometimes bloody 1966-76 political and intellectual upheaval known as the Cultural Revolution.

"I think that there's a tremendous appeal for sort of young subcultural people and groups, like pop groups, to draw on something like the workers, not the fat cats," she said.

Pricier versions of the hat are now showing up on runways, and cheap ones are available at your local big box retailer.

Sharon Haver, style director at focusonstyle.com, says snowboarders have been wearing the hat too. She says Patrick Stump's allegiance to the style - whether he realized it or not - took the hat to the masses.

"When he puts it on, it suddenly takes it out of L.A. or New York or off the slopes and makes it mainstream," she said. "They're cool guys and they're in the forefront of being trendy right now and it's credited to them."

Alex Fink, a senior at Tulane University in New Orleans, ordered a blue and white striped version of the Mao hat - a kind of train engineer style - to receive his diploma from former Presidents Clinton and Bush earlier this month.

He wasn't trying to be hip, but he was trying to make a statement: Tulane officials decided to oust several engineering programs in the school's post-Hurricane Katrina restructuring. Wearing the hat was Fink's bid at making his disapproval known.

But the short-brimmed style has grown on him: "I am starting to wear it out a lot now because I've got it."

Now that the masses are catching on, the style may already be on the way out.

Even Stump - the crooner of choice for the teen set - has started wearing a different kind of hat.

"He's moving on," Fall Out Boy's bassist Pete Wentz said. "It kind of like has a brim all the way around, kind of what middle-aged men wear when they go on vacation to the Bahamas. It's a kind of fedora. It's an updated fedora."

Beats the Hitler hat.

[Last modified May 20, 2006, 08:03:29]


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