Post date: May 28, 2013 2:59:27 AM

[originally posted on February 15, 2012, at aialalevy.posterous.com]

Of utmost importance to the lawmakers who drafted what would become Decree 1714 of March 18, 1909, was fire safety, public behavior, contract enforcement, and… hats. Decree 1714 was an executive order of the state of São Paulo intended to clarify a previously passed bill, Article 23 of Law 1103 (26 Nov 1907), that dictated that the inspection of theaters was exclusively within the jurisdiction of the state police.

Clarification, indeed. Decreto 1714 featured 8 chapters and a whopping 102 articles. It offered guidelines for conducting inspections; stipulated that all entertainment events obtain government approval (reasons for rejection: offending any national or foreign state, their leaders, or "good customs and public decency," including allusions to "aggressive" figures or other means of "disturbing the public order"); that theaters be built with a range of safety features, among them unobstructed aisles, marked exits, and electric or screened gas lighting; that production companies be honest to their customers and employees; and that audience hygiene and comfort be ensured through daily cleaning, assigned seating, and the regulation of behavior. Police were granted the right to toss out anyone disturbing the peace and suspend a show if necessary.

They were also required to strictly enforce designated hat-free areas. In sum:

Art 12: In the first ten rows of the orchestra level and the first two rows of balconies, women are prohibited from maintaining hats on their heads during the show.

§1: Café-concertos [think Moulin Rouge] are exempt from the above rule.

§2: Theater companies must announce the above rule in all publicity.

§3: Box offices must have seating charts indicating which seats are hat-restricted.

Art 45: Male audience members should:

§2: Maintain their heads uncovered during shows, except in café-concertos; women can't don hats in sections of a theater where this is prohibited.

Italian singer Amelia Novelli in A Vida Moderna 2, no. 29-30 (25 Dec 1907), p.45

Italian singer Amelia Novelli in A Vida Moderna 2, no. 29-30 (25 Dec 1907), p.45.

"Fashion--The Latest Parisian Novelties," Fon-Fon! 1, no. 1 (13 Apr 1907), p.33

"Fashion--The Latest Parisian Novelties," Fon-Fon! 1, no. 1 (13 Apr 1907), p.33.

"Leaving the Lyrico [Rio's opera house]" Fon-Fon! 1, no. 1 (13 Apr 1907), p.25

"Leaving the Lyrico [Rio opera house]" Fon-Fon! 1, no. 1 (13 Apr 1907), p.25.

So why all the hubbub? One way to sum it up is the challenge of gendered habits. The height and broad brims of turn-of-the-century hats added a touch of masculinity to female fashion, but that touch was compromised by etiquette. While men were accustomed to removing hats indoors and in greeting, women were not held by that rule. In fact, in some cases, it would have been an extraordinarily difficult feat for a woman to do so, not to mention odd to observe. Hats were a part of the hairdo, as pinned and elaborately set as Betty Draper's beehive in Mad Men. The most expensive hats featured an assortment of ribbons, feathers, flowers, and even stuffed hummingbirds (think My Fair Lady's Eliza Doolittle at the races). And they were big. In a recent episode of Modern Family, Gloria wonders why giant hats are back in fashion, and with good reason. Just take a look at Marc Jacobs's Fall 2012 show. Imagine trying to enjoy, say, Puccini's La Bohème while sitting behind this monstrosity.

The other problem of gendered habits has to do with the shift in audience seating. Through much of the nineteenth century in Brazil, the orchestra level (platéia, which also refers to the audience at large) was male territory (see Giuliana Martins Simões's 2001 USP Masters thesis). Women sat in chairs in boxes, far from the dangers of the crowd but within easy line of sight. While perched in their lofts, women's hairstyles and hats were never an inconvenience to fellow spectators; on the contrary, such embellishments were key to attracting attention and displaying status. That function was still served by large hats in 1909, but now women were sitting in the front rows, rubbing elbows with men.

As Decree 1714 implies, a co-ed platéia was not necessarily a sign of female liberation, but rather indication that (certain) auditoriums in their entirety had become more wholesome. Articles 27 and 45 asked spectators to preserve a "correct attitude," not disturb their peers or performers, and at least arrive clean, sober, and appropriately dressed. Such laws were hardly new and, moreover, were increasingly self-enforced as notions of the relation between audience and performance were debated and revised in the second half of the nineteenth century. Perhaps the best known theoretician was composer ("total art"ist?) Richard Wagner, who intended his work to be a sensual experience so complete that audience members would disconnect from their environment, each silently and individually absorbed by the performance. The individualization of the public coincided with the emergence of crowd theory, such as that propagated by Gustave Le Bon (The Crowd, 1895), which further spurred lawmakers to regulate audience behavior.

Regulation took many forms, and in the case of hats, it underlined the continued perception of women as the more sensitive, decorous sex. In São Paulo, the hat controversy arrived by way of Wisconsin (yes, the state of cheese curds and frozen custard). In May of 1897, A Platéa reported in jest that the Wisconsin senate had voted against a bill that would have fined women for wearing large hats inside theaters. (To which the columnist added, "The curious thing is that the opinion of the Senate special committee had been composed in verse!") Three months later, the same column condoned the solution proposed by Bridgefort, CT: a female "hat inspector" whose sole job would be to request "with delicacy" that a woman sporting an obstructive hat promptly remove it. Police assistance would only be called upon in the stubbornest of cases. Paulista lawmakers were not yet ready to employ women, but they were interested in safeguarding their propriety. In the spirit of Bridgefort, theater inspectors were encouraged to display the utmost "prudence" while enforcing the hat restriction (Art 46 §5). No need for throwing gentlewomen out the door--for indeed the bearers of large hats were gentlewomen. Imagine the scandal that would have ensued. And all because of a hat.