Since its founding in 1903, Levine Hat Co. – whose tagline exhorts, “Be Somebody, Wear a Hat!” – has been making area residents flip their lids.
Family patriarch and former Kansas City dry cleaner Benjamin Levine established the downtown St. Louis retailer at a location a handful of blocks east of its present site on Washington Avenue. Over time, the company passed to a second generation of Levines, then a third: Edward (who died in December at the age of 83) and Carole Levine. Their son, Lance Levine, nowadays (forgive the pun) heads the company.
Moreover, reflecting his heritage, Lance Levine doesn’t just talk the talk – he walks the walk. “Pretty much every day, I wear about a 2¼-inch-brim fedora,” he says. “I have a bunch of different colors and different materials. Just a gentleman’s fedora, a snap brim, basic. And that’s me – that’s my hat.”
The company’s website characterizes it as “the largest retail hat store in the world in terms of floor space and hats displayed,” with thousands of chapeaus stocked in a three-story 30,000-square-foot showroom and warehouse.
The website also boasts of having sold more than a million top toppers since the company’s founding. Beyond long-term “bricks” sales, Levine also enjoys a robust “clicks” trade to Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, India, Russia and the United Kingdom.
“Over the past 100 or so years, the most popular hat has always been that gentleman’s dress fedora,” Levine says. “Right now, we’ve moved back to a little bit wider-brimmed fedora, so something we sell a lot of would be a 2¼- to a 2½-inch gentleman’s fedora – the type of fedora you’d see [20th-century cinematic icon] Humphrey Bogart wearing. Now, just a few years ago, the styles were a little bit different, and guys were wearing a little bit shorter brims, what you might call a ‘stingy’ brim.”
The company’s website cites a minimum of 16 brands available, ranging from Bailey from Adamstown, Pennsylvania, to Tilley Endurables from Toronto, Ontario. (Also, although Levine generally specializes only in retailing nowadays, its site assures potential customers that “we have all the capabilities to make you a specialty hat the old-world way.”)
“We sell a lot of Stetson, and we sell a lot of Dobbs [Fifth Avenue] – and we sell most of all of our own brand, which is Levine,” Levine says. “And we have another, value-priced brand that we call 9th Street, and that’s a throwback to our original location on Ninth Street, over 50 years ago.”
Styles cited on Levine’s website include the ever-fashionable fedora and the venerable homburg, the endearing bucket hat and the Parrothead-pleasing Panama, the jaunty derby and the formidable top hat – among many others.
“People shouldn’t be scared to wear the right hat for the right occasion,” Levine says. “We have a perfect opera hat, and it’s a top hat. I haven’t been to the opera recently, but if … I’m going to a really dressy, elegant-type thing, there is a specific hat. You’ll either wear a homburg, or you’ll go all-out and wear the top hat. I think back in the old days, people understood that a top hat was much dressier than a fedora.”
The website also incorporates a sublime section on hat etiquette, which provides valuable counsel for men and women alike. (“A gentleman should remove his hat as he enters a building,” it advises at one point, “including a restaurant, home, classroom, theater, church.”)
Logophilic visitors to the website likewise should delight in its glossary of 325-plus hatting terms. They range from abacca – “(Musa textilis) A plant growing in the Philippines that produces the fiber used in the production of sisal and sinamay” – to zucchetto – “skullcap worn by Roman Catholic clergy; black for priests, purple for bishops, red for cardinals, white for the pope.”
Online, finally, the company responds to inquiries from customers and others. “I’ve heard that 10-gallon hats are named so because they can hold 10 gallons of liquid, but they don’t look nearly big enough,” states one interlocutor from Dubuque, Iowa. “What gives?”
Charmingly, the company’s answer – which covers two paragraphs and which references an arcane Mexican hatmaking term, the 19th-century Southwestern/Mexican vaqueros (cowboys) and Tom Mix, the early 20th-century American star of almost 300 Western movies, most of them silent – begins: “To be sure, we’ve never seen a hat nearly big enough to hold 10 gallons of liquid.”
Levine, in mentioning that his family company’s male customers predominantly range in age from 35 to 65, briefly reflects on a generational note, stating that his late father’s taste in headwear coincided with his own, “also a fedora, with a little smaller, ‘classic’ brim. He wore a classic-brim gentleman’s fedora, very similar to me. We wear a very different size. He wore a small, and I wear a large. But the hat style is the same.”
Longtime patrons of Levine Hat Co. likely would have it no other way.
Levine Hat Co., 1416 Washington Ave., St. Louis, 314-231-3359, levinehat.com