Aug 24, 2023
Hong Kong hatter Richard Avery breaks down Cillian Murphy’s hat in ‘Oppenheimer’
The founder of The Man In The Hat shop talks to Tatler about the the hat worn by Cillian Murphy in the film, and the fedora styles worn by Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart and the real J. Robert
The founder of The Man In The Hat shop talks to Tatler about the the hat worn by Cillian Murphy in the film, and the fedora styles worn by Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart and the real J. Robert Oppenheimer
After the July release of Christopher Nolan’s movie on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist known as the “father of the atomic bomb”, Hong Kong hatter Richard Avery thought he would see a surge of customers coming to his vintage hat shop looking for the “Oppenheimer hat”—and he was partially right.
People didn’t come wanting to buy the specific style worn by Cillian Murphy, the Irish actor who played Oppenheimer in the film—a flat top fedora with a wide brim—but there were plenty of people wanting to get a hat; any hat.
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Meanwhile, Avery himself has been rocking a fedora way before the film was made, and has long been fascinated with its evolution through popular culture. Recently, Tatler caught up with Avery at his shop, The Man In The Hat in Sai Ying Pun, to talk all things millinery.
“When I look at pictures of [the real] J. Robert Oppenheimer, he’s wearing a hat that looks like he’s reshaped himself,” Avery says, which makes sense to him.
“Oppenheimer’s family had a property in New Mexico, so he spent parts of his childhood there, and he loved to ride horses and enjoyed a kind of western cowboy lifestyle. So I think it’s highly probable that one of the first hats he ever bought was a cowboy hat from Stetson, [a famous US hat brand that’s still popular today]”, he says. Made of animal felt, these hats were designed to be worn in all weathers and could be moulded and reshaped if they were wrecked.
However, he points out that the film got two things wrong, likely for cinematic effect: “One, that Oppenheimer only wore one hat his whole life; and two, he was the only person who wore a hat. That’s simply inaccurate.”
Avery explains that it was common in the early 20th century for a man in the Western world to own least six hats that they would wear on rotation. The reason they’d had more than one was to have a hat for every season and activity—from fishing to driving, or just for going to work. “So, to assume he didn’t have different hats was kind of strange,” he says.
The fedora worn by Murphy in the film was also not very true to life. It was supplied by Baron Hats, a famous Los Angeles-based brand that has been making hats for Hollywood films since the 1980s and “it’s clearly soft and made of beaver felt, based on the way it reacts to the wind in the film,” Avery says. While it looks fantastic, the hatter says it wasn’t “particularly authentic” to that era.
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“It’s cool in a modern way, [but] in the ’40s and ’50s, the brim of the fedora was getting shorter, not wider, and the crown was getting lower, not taller,” he says. The hats worn by actor Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942) and singer Frank Sinatra in the ’50s are more accurate examples of hats from that time, Avery adds.
The local hatter then shared with us some fun facts from history. For example, that “the most famous hat styles, including the fedora, started life as women’s hats. [French actress] Sarah Bernhardt, the first global superstar, popularised this style of hat when she wore it in a play called Fédora in the early 1880s. After that, men in New York started going to their hat shops and saying ‘hey, I want that Fédora hat’.”
In fact, the hat featured in Oppenheimer is reminiscent of that style, and Avery says that was because the movie’s “costume designer Ellen Mirojnick was deliberately going for an iconic look that would have an impact on fashion”. And perhaps it was also to mirror Oppenheimer’s impact on history and the world.
Indeed, every aspect of costuming is an important part of building a character, and the hat certainly added to Murphy’s performance and character development.
“When you’re wearing a hat, it affects you,” Avery say. “It’s on your head where your brain is and close to your eyes—you can’t escape it. There’s a strong relationship between the hat and one’s perceived character. [For example,] there’s a moment in the film where you see Oppenheimer walking and he puts the hat on and pulls it [down]. I loved those moments—it reminded me of when people are trying on about ten hats in my shop, and then they’ll put one on, and suddenly they don’t want to take it off anymore.”
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