The Only Hat That Matters


The undisputed Queen of Soul has died, but Aretha Franklin’s music and the iconic hat she wore at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009 will live on forever in our hearts and in our memes. Towering head wraps and massive church hats were Franklin’s bread and butter for decades, but it was this simple gray felt cap with a rhinestone bow on it that exemplifies her hat legacy.

It was designed by Luke Song, a Korean immigrant who grew up helping out his family’s hat business in Detroit, who eventually became well known in the city’s black church circles for his extravagant designs. Franklin was Song’s customer for over 20 years when she asked him to design some headwear fit for such a historic event.

Song spoke with NPR about the creation of the iconic hat in 2013:

Originally, Song said, Franklin wanted fur “because it was going to be so cold.” But he told her a fur hat, while elegant, came with problems: “Fur is hard to light,” Song explained. “I told her it might cast shadows on her face.” So she thought about a backup option. Together they looked at some of the designs Song had created already, and Franklin told him she wanted to combine elements of two: the head-hugging cloche base, and a show-stopping bow from another design.

On the first go-round, as Aretha told NPR in 2009, Song went too heavy on the rhinestones and the hat needed to be toned down:

I asked him – there was too many rhinestones on the bow for the early morning hour. I said, take all of the rhinestones off, but leave just a touch of the stones, just outline the bow with the stones and kind of tilt it in another direction – just aesthetics were better for me.

The result of this glorious collaboration: An instant meme. Famous figures from Spock to Osama Bin Laden were photoshopped wearing the hat and people’s online avatars were edited similarly. The hat became the subject of daytime talk shows and late night jokes.

The hat was such a hot commodity that the Smithsonian wanted the original—but Franklin was unsure she could part with her “chapeau” because it’s history in and of itself. In a statement, she said, “I would like to smile every time I look back at it and remember what a great moment it was in American and African-American history.”

Let’s pour one out for the icon, and the iconic hat.

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