“How To Make a Porkpie Hat” by Eleanor Keaton
Buster’s trademark hat was worn in his very first film, The Butcher Boy. The hat was very similar to the hat he had used on the stage. In silent films, every film comedian had a signature hat. Derbies were the most popular, with both Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle wearing them, and Harold Lloyd adopted the straw hat. Buster set out to create his own hat, which would set him apart from the other comedians as well as endure rough treatment and still keep its shape.
Buster bought gray fedora hats in his size, which was 6 7/8. He preferred the fedoras manufactured by Stetson, but used other brands when the Stetsons were not available. He then ripped out the inside lining and folded in the crown, as seen in the series of photographs above.
The second step was to cut the brim down to size (a normal fedora has too wide a brim) to about two inches.
The third step was to flatten and stiffen the brim. This was done with three heaping teaspoons of granulated sugar in one cup of warm water. With a small paint brush, he wet the top and bottom of the brim with the sugar water. The last step was to use a steam iron to flatten out the brim. The hat was placed right side up on a hard surface and let to dry to further stiffen and flatten the brim.
Buster had difficulty keeping the brim flat. He never tipped his hat or removed it by holding the brim. He always held the hat from the crown, as the brim was delicate.
Buster went through half a dozen hats per film in the silent era. Later, he could make two hats last a whole year, unless he was working on a project in which there were scenes involving water. If he played around with water, Buster could go through as many as twelve hats a year. The felt disintegrates if it becomes too wet, and the hats just fall apart and cannot be reused. Buster trained me to make most of his hats for him not long after we were married.
My favorite memory of Buster making his hat is when we were in Germany in 1962 to promote the screenings of The General. He needed a new hat. Buster went to a little hat shop next to our hotel in Frankfurt and pointed out the hat he wanted to the little elderly man who ran the shop. Buster pantomimed everything, as he did not speak German and the shopkeeper did not speak English. Buster tried on the fedora and liked it. He then pantomimed scissors, and the shopkeeper handed Buster a pair of shears. Buster proceeded to tear the entire hat lining out, fold down the crown and cut the brim. The old man looked like he was about to have a stroke because Buster had not yet paid for the hat. When Buster finished and placed the hat on his head to test it, the old man recognized who Buster was and what was taking place in his hat shop.
-Buster Keaton Remembered