The All-American gimme cap

art critic cap copy

I first recognized that the common baseball cap had taken over the world the second time I drove through eastern Washington, through the vast green and blowing wheat fields of the Palouse. The first time, in the early 1980s, all the farmers and ranchers wore curl-brimmed Western hats, either straw or felt. There was a distinctly cowboy feel to the agricultural workers.

But a few years later, these same wizened, leather-skinned and toothpick-thin men wore the duck-billed “gimme cap” of their local John Deere dealer or seed company.


The artificial romance of the cowboy was gone for good. The gimme cap became standard.

If we think of Abraham Lincoln in his stovepipe top hat, or Harry Truman in a gray fedora, we are more likely to think of Bill Clinton in a ballcap. Fashions change.

You can still find the gimme cap in rural America, where it gives its wearer an honest day’s labor, but it is in the city that the cap has grown up. A John Deere cap on a farmer means one thing, but the same hat on an advertising company’s art director means quite another.

He is showing off his sense of hipness.

In fact, it is precisely this sense of irony that gives the ballcap — on MTV or on a city lawyer’s weekend head — its cache. We wear the caps to say something other than what the caps seem to say.

I know. I have had a ballcap collection going for something like 20 years, always looking for the corporate logo or bumper-sticker slogan that can be read ambiguously.

My collection is nothing like it used to be: As we get older, our need to express ourselves to strangers weakens and seems less important. Yet, I still have some of my favorites:

There is a DeKalb Seed Company hat with its logo of a flying corn-on-the-cob. I have always taken this as something of a personal totem. Anyone who has read much of my writing will recognize this immediately and have a good laugh.


Then there is the red cap with the giant “X” across it. Such hats were the rage when Spike Lee’s film, Malcolm X, came out. But most of its wearers were Black. I wore the hat nonetheless, and when asked about it, I always said it wasn’t about the Black Muslim leader, but was rather a tribute to my favorite chromosome.

O also love the suede gray, elegant cap with the winged “A”  on its front that was sold to advertise the Tony Kushner plays, Angels in America. It is a very butch hat for so subtle a play. It implies a great deal, but its message is only readable to a very few.

My favorite cap recently has been the gray and black Nixon hat. When I wear it to the ballpark, I tell people it honors Otis Nixon, my favorite of all former Atlanta Braves centerfielders — a very large and distinguished group of alumni. Nixon is also a charter member  of my personally selected “All-Ugly” squad. Lord, I enjoyed watching him play.

otis nixon

The perfect gimme cap, though, has the logo of the Shakespeare fishing gear company on it, written in an elegant script as though it were the signature of the Elizabethan playwright. When I wore it, my highbrow friends assumed it was in honor of the author of Hamlet; my more sports-minded friends took it as an endorsement of a rod-and-reel. It was perfectly ambiguous.

I wore that hat out and its replacement is a little less perfect, for added to the signature is the slogan “Since 1897,” which flattens some of the irony.

shakespeare logo

Many gimme caps are promotional items, meant to hawk a new movie or rock band. The most misaimed of these has to be the A&E network cap, with the logo on the backside, so it can be worn bill-back in home-boy style. What used to be the Arts and Entertainment network has given up completely on art, and given over to rednecks making duck calls, or chasing wild pigs across Texas. Artless.

Of course there are people who wear their caps with no sense of irony at all. They don’t mind advertising the Nike swoosh or their favorite baseball team or their brand of cola. They are left hopelessly behind. We read their lives like a book. The irony is meant, instead to hide, while revealing to the initiated.

The non-ironic ballcap is the equivalent of one of those oh-so-earnest bumper stickers that the politically committed paste on their cars. Yes, we care about whirled peas, and our gunless hands will be cold and dead. We should not be so one-dimensional.

But giving out a more complex message, the wealthy Hollywood actor, Tom Selleck can wear the blue-collar Detroit Tigers hat and pretend to be one of the proletariat.

Brooklyn cap

Which is why I choose the Brooklyn Dodgers cap, or the sky blue of the “Oral & Facial Surgical Center of Corinth, Mississippi,” or the plaid Bear Surf Boards cap.

It makes you think twice.

  1. Anybody wants me to carry their advertising can pay me to do so. Until then, I’m sticking with my Amish hats.

  2. I think these caps are like bumper stickers my self. Great commercial advertising just different kinds of media. Right?

  3. I would accept no less than $300 per hour to jam bad acrylic and nylon down over my head and brain, suffocating my thoughts and hair just to be someone’s walking billboard. I only wear two hats on rare occasion: fleece when it’s too cold to think anymore and a Kokotat Tropos Seawester Kayak hat when it’s pouring buckets. All other days of the year, my scalp flies solo.

  4. Richard,
    What a great post! “They are left hopelessly behind”; indeed!
    Love your style and voice.
    Congrats on making the front page!

  5. nearlynormalized said:

    I’ll take a good T-Shirt anytime….No framers, or Tiger Woods forehead tan for me.

  6. dreamsonthehill said:

    Making duck calls isn’t art? Too funny. None of the “reality” networks show anything reality, its all contrived and unfortunate. At least the History Channel got my attention a few days ago advertising an upcoming documentary on Kellogs and onanism. There I was watching the History Channel hap hazardly while on the computer then the commercial says Corn Flakes was created to keep you from, ba ba ba. My eyes quickly focused on the screen thinking to myself, he just said what. Did he really say that. Yes he did. By the way, I like ball caps they just don’t like me,

  7. I very much enjoyed this post. Clever, funny, and great images. My dad always said: “if it’s free, take two.” Maybe that’s why there’s so much crap in the basement. Also why we have “hat parties.” 🙂

  8. Bowrag said:

    I love the Astros hat… Hardly anyone wears it outside of Houston. Always gets a second glance or two.

  9. RL said:

    You refer to caps as a “cap” sometimes, yet sometimes you refer to caps as a “hat”. I wonder if you refer to top hats as caps, or perhaps you think cowboys wear “cowboy caps” or “straw caps”?

  10. perthguts said:

    Rather than subverting the meaning of a gimme hat for ironic use I would argue that a wearer can find deeper appreciation in a gimme hat with a graphic motif that they truly identify with that illicits a strong sense of nostalgia for the wearer for the era it represents and the authenticity that can only be found in a true vintage piece.

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