I wanted Bill Murray’s hat.
That was one of the big takeaways that 10-year-old me had from the movie Space Jam. I failed to recognize the movie’s hidden pro-union politics at the time, and the Looney Tunes jokes were okay, but it wasn’t nearly as funny as the stuff in classic shorts like “Rebel Rabbit.” Murray’s stupid-looking umbrella hat, though? Man, I wanted one of those.
I don’t know if I wanted one ironically or if I actually thought they were cool, but I never did manage to snag one. They’re probably not that hard to get, yet I’ve literally never thought of one while umbrella shopping (which I generally only do in a panic when it’s already raining). It’s probably for the best anyway — even though umbrella hats have been around since 1880, they’ve never been cool, except for a brief period in the late 1970s. For the rest of their entire history, umbrella hats have been a tell-tale sign that someone is a giant dork.
Before going further, I should probably acknowledge that umbrella hats can serve a useful function for archeologists, farmers and others who need to use their hands in the hot sun. They also can be useful for the disabled, and they’ve actually made some strides with acceptance overseas. The umbrella hat has a rather obvious practical function as well, as it keeps your hand free instead of holding an umbrella. Nonetheless, the umbrella hat has mostly been considered a ridiculous item, and that started as soon as it was introduced.
The invention of the umbrella hat is generally attributed to an eccentric named Robert W. Patten, who lived in Seattle from 1890 to 1910. Patten was somewhat of a local celebrity, and was known to regale Seattleites with largely apocryphal tales of his life — like how he’d been a Civil War hero put on special assignment by Abe Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. As for the umbrella hat, he claimed that he invented it while prospecting in Mexico, but whether that’s true is impossible to say. Undermining his claim is a patent for an umbrella hat by S.N. Campbell from 1855, though it’s certainly possible that Patten had the same idea on his own.
Whether or not Patten invented the umbrella hat, he sure as hell popularized it. Beginning in 1909, he became the subject of a series of cartoons by Seattle cartoonist Dok Hager. The character — named “Umbrella Man” — would accompany the weather report on the front page of The Seattle Daily Times. Later on, he was joined by a duck as a sidekick.
Patten was seemingly a charming, welcome figure in Seattle, but the cartoons weren’t flattering portrayals, and it’s clear that his ridiculous hat was used for comedy, even in rain-drenched Seattle, where such a hat would have come in handy.
The comics certainly didn’t start a fashion trend either, as evidenced by the fact that, over the next few decades, a variety of people would “invent” the hat all over again, apparently unaware that it already existed. In 1939, an L.A. inventor was written up in a Los Angeles Times piece that began, “Bizarre headgear may not be confined to the gentler sex.” Similarly sexist articles would also appear in the 1950s, when an umbrella maker was marketing a new umbrella hat to his female customers by saying, “Sure it’s wild. It’s just crazy enough for women to take to it in droves.”
Be it kooky inventors or sexist umbrella salesmen, the umbrella hat was always a punchline in the media. In 1950, a Donald Duck comic book saw Donald ridiculing Daisy for wearing an umbrella hat. That said, Daisy’s headgear was a much more fashionable, wide-brimmed hat, and Donald probably should have kept his fucking beak shut.
In looking into this subject, I did get some mixed messages from the 1950s that are worth mentioning. On one hand, that article with the chauvinist umbrella salesman claimed that umbrella hats were catching on nationwide, but I found nothing else to verify this. In fact, less than a year after that claim, I found pictures of comedian Red Skelton in an umbrella hat, clearly done for comedic effect. My conclusion is that that guy was full of shit, and that umbrella hats were as lame in the 1950s as they’d been in the seven decades preceding it.
However, for one, brief, shining moment, umbrella hats were actually en vogue. As hard as that may be to swallow, from about 1976 to the early 1980s, St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Lou Brock actually succeeded where Robert Patten had failed. Beginning sometime in the mid-1970s, Brock not only began wearing an umbrella hat, but selling a line of them that he called the “Brockabrella.” In an interview, Brock claimed that he saw a fan wearing an umbrella hat once and thought it would be a great thing to wear specifically when the Cardinals played the Cubs at Wrigley Field, where fans would often throw beer on the opposing team.
His umbrella hat wasn’t ironic either. It was hardly a fashion revolution, but it’s safe to say the Brockabrella genuinely became cool during this time. As such, led first by Cardinals fans, the headgear began to spread coast to coast. In 1976, ads for the Brockabrella appeared in the Tampa Tribune and in 1977, the Los Angeles Times had an ad for a car dealership that promised a free Brockabrella with any test drive. But perhaps the greatest sign of its acceptance came in 1981 when another ballplayer — Reggie Smith of the Dodgers — was photographed completely unironically in a Brockabrella in Jet magazine.
But while Smith showed solidarity with Brock’s bold fashion choice, another ballplayer would tear down the umbrella hat in one fell swoop. In 1984, Chicago Cubs outfielder Jay Johnstone was featured on a Fleer baseball card wearing a ridiculous-looking Brockabrella covered in the Budweiser logo. Johnstone would later claim this was an accident and that he didn’t know Fleer was there that day. The image, however, still seemed to suit him, being that he was then regarded as “Baseball’s Merry Prankster.”
Thus, the Brockabrella became undone by a member of the Cubs, the very team whose beer-chucking fans Brock was trying to shield himself from in the first place. Intentional or not, the umbrella hat was once again a joke. To that end, just a few years later, the umbrella hat was made into a gag in Beetlejuice, and comedian Lily Tomlin would occasionally wear one for laughs. Beyond Bill Murray in Space Jam, Homer Simpson wore a Duff beer umbrella hat while promoting his yard sale in a 1996 episode of The Simpsons.
The new millennium wasn’t much kinder to the umbrella hat, as it was used as a punchline in Betty and Veronica comics, the Jim Carrey movie Bruce Almighty and the cartoon My Little Pony. On a couple of occasions — once in 2009 and again in 2018 — the fashion industry tried to reintroduce the umbrella hat as high fashion, but it’s safe to say that without the help of Lou Brock, the umbrella hat failed to have any sort of revival.
In September 2020, Brock died at the age of 81. With him, it seems, went the last best hope the umbrella hat ever had. It began as a joke atop the crown of a Seattle eccentric in the 1890s and remained that way for the next nine decades — and then pretty much for the next four decades after that. But thanks to the Brockabrella, it did have its moment in the sun, even if it was better suited for rain.