Editor’s note, June 11, 2021: This Saturday, Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark turn 40 years old. Here’s a feature on Indy’s immediately iconic look, which was originally published in June 2020.
Three decades after Indiana Jones uncovered the lost Ark of the Covenant, Deborah Nadoolman Landis began her own archaeological expedition.
Tasked with curating a Hollywood costume exhibition for London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2012, the Raiders of the Lost Ark costume designer knew she needed to include her iconic creation: Indy’s signature fedora and brown leather jacket. So Landis, who’s also designed other classics from Three Amigos!, The Blues Brothers, and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, visited Skywalker Ranch, where the movie’s producer, George Lucas, allowed her full access to his archives. When she asked an assistant to guide her toward Indiana’s wardrobe, she was met with a shrug. Instead of labeled racks detailing each piece of clothing, which film it was worn in, and who it was worn by, countless hats and jackets—donned by everyone from stand-ins to stunt men—hung in a room, crammed together without any classification. “She just pointed me in that direction and said, ‘Have a wonderful time,’” Landis recalls.
As the only true authenticator of Indiana Jones’s first khaki attire, Landis stretched her memory 30 years and began sorting through fedoras, hoping one might resemble the original Raiders hat. Each had been stamped with a gold “IJ,” making them impossible to differentiate. But eventually, one hat in particular caught her eye. Unlike the others she’d inspected, this fedora’s interior lining had the original label of Herbert Johnson, the British hatmaker that had supplied the Raiders inventory. Surrounded by Indy paraphernalia, Landis let out a sigh of relief. “I couldn’t imagine that I would find anything from the first film,” Landis admits. “That was Harrison’s no. 1 hat, that was the holy grail. … It was a tingling, hair-on-the-back-of-the-head moment.” After a couple more hours of searching, she found two original jackets with brass zippers and D rings at the hip, which differed from the supply’s other European styles, to complete her dig. The trip, and specifically the hat’s uncovery, “really was cathartic,” she says.
Ever since Raiders of the Lost Ark debuted in theaters on June 12, 1981, die-hard, sartorially inclined fans have been searching for—and occasionally finding—what Landis felt that day. Steven Spielberg’s adventure throwback cemented him as the king of the summer blockbuster and propelled Harrison Ford to superstardom, but to some, Raiders is just as much a moment of glory for the fedora. From the movie’s opening image, with its archetypal explorer journeying through the South American jungle, the hat’s silhouette etched itself into the blue-sky backdrop and into theatergoers’ minds. And as its shadow was repeatedly and purposely cast on cave walls or carved-out sunsets, it became an inextricable part of Indiana Jones, and one of the most identifiable accessories in movie history.
Part of why that happened is the sheer power of iconography and the overwhelming success of a movie franchise—but the other part is a story about the debate surrounding authorship and legend, as a fan base within a fan base cast themselves as pseudoarchaeologists in the mold of their hero. Through the years—before and especially after the advent of the internet—the fervor and interest around the Raiders fedora has been sustained, its history turning into a myth that’s been both heralded and debunked. Thirty-nine years after the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark, fans and hatmakers continue to capitalize on and cherish the fedora’s handsome look—while also debating its origins.
In 1979, before Lawrence Kasdan wrote the Raiders screenplay, George Lucas called up concept artist Jim Steranko and asked for four large paintings of an indiscriminate 1930s hero. He wanted scenes of the archaeologist battling Nazis and avoiding snakes while dressed in a leather jacket and a felt hat “with the brim turned down.” Landis never saw the paintings before she started her job; Spielberg had his own way of describing Indiana.
The director, who had worked with Landis on 1941, showed her a colored-pencil sketch, an elementary-style portrait of the archaeologist complete with a fedora, brown jacket, and boots. The idea for the character was further sharpened after the pair watched The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Secret of the Incas, and The Greatest Show on Earth, movies whose leading men, Humphrey Bogart and Charlton Heston, all sported classic, midcentury fedoras. Eventually, everyone in production had a clear vision for Indiana Jones. “If you look at Charlton Heston [in Incas], he had the three or four days’ stubble beard and the same look,” executive producer Howard Kazanjian says. “We weren’t copying that, but there was very little in [our] picture that was new.”
Chastened by the flop of 1941, Spielberg approached Raiders as a B movie, a cost-saving endeavor that moved his production team to London’s Elstree Studios, which Lucas had used for Star Wars. Landis had begun working on a prototype costume for Tom Selleck; when he turned down the role and Ford came aboard in his place, she started her efforts anew. She began with the fedora, taking her new star to Bermans and Nathans in London’s Camden district to find the right shape. Without worrying about colors, she dumped dozens of boxes of different hats onto the floor for Ford to try on, in order to determine the best brim and crown proportions for his face. After trying on every single hat by a mirror, Ford and Landis agreed on the best look. “It’s so helpful to look at the actor over their shoulder into the mirror, because it flattens the image and gives you a much more accurate impression of how a costume will look in a movie,” Landis says.
Now knowing what she was looking for, Landis went to Herbert Johnson in London and chose an Australian model from the company’s presentation line. “The Australian model had a wide enough brim that we could adapt it,” Landis says. “Then we worked on the width and the crown and the color.” Eventually, she landed on an earthy tone to reflect Indy’s vocation. Made of soft rabbit felt, the fedora had an inherent pliability, so Landis packed the original in her personal suitcase and ordered 10 more for the film. Before the first day of shooting in La Rochelle, France, Ford kept Landis company by their hotel pool as she began aging the fedoras, scrubbing them with Fuller’s earth and mineral oil and scrunching them beneath her bed. “He had to look like he had been wearing these new clothes for his entire life—slept in them, worked in them, that they had been sweated through and they were his second skin,” she says.
Upon seeing Ford in Indiana Jones’s full getup, cinematographer Douglas Slocombe realized that he had a silhouette he could use as a repeating aesthetic. In an early scene when Indiana recruits Marion (Karen Allen) in Nepal, the camera never once shows his face; the character is identifiable only by his signature fedora, projected in shadow behind her. Later, when Indy begins covertly digging up the ark in Egypt, Slocombe captures the brimmed figure in front of a melting sun, enough to distinguish the protagonist from his crew. “We had talked about movies like Robin Hood and the shadows in movies of that era—there would be shadows against the wall of somebody sword fighting,” Kazanjian says. “Doug was able to do that. That’s not an easy thing.”
The hat also seemed to have magical elements. In the movie’s opening South American sequence, Indy escapes the Hovito tribe by jumping into a river and swimming to his getaway plane—despite a big splash and the propeller’s gusts, the soaked hat never leaves his head. The same sort of headwear wizardry is on display in a climactic truck chase, when Jones somehow keeps his brim steady while sliding underneath the vehicle’s engine and then being dragged by a piece of rope. Over the next two sequels, Spielberg doubled down on the fedora’s near-mythic quality. In one famous sequence in Temple of Doom, Indy narrowly escapes death by sliding underneath a closing boulder door, nearly sacrificing his arm just to snatch his fedora, which had fallen on the other side. The Last Crusade even takes time to show the origin story of Jones’s signature accessory: When a young Indy, portrayed by River Phoenix, fails to keep the stolen Cross of Coronado out of a villain’s hands, he’s given his dusty hat as a consolation.
Much like Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, the professor “Dr. Jones” only cast his other, adventurous persona into further relief. By the time the trilogy had ended, Indy’s weathered fedora might as well have been a red cape.
Over the following decades, as the advent of DVDs enabled freeze-frame scrutiny, those who had fallen for the Raiders fedora—with its pinched box crown, diagonal crease, and asymmetrical brim—sharpened their inspections. Good eyes noticed cosmetic inconsistencies in the sequels: slight, nearly imperceptible differences in the crown of the fedora’s signature creases, pinches, and tapering. In the mid-to-late ’90s, these kinds of observations built the foundation of the message boards of Indy-themed, costume-obsessed blogs and websites, littered with fans driven to discovering all the details and discrepancies of their favorite series.
Whereas other classic movie franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek had numerous books detailing their original costumers and suppliers, little material about Indiana Jones props or clothing was publicly available. So much like the archaeologist they adored, online Indy communities grew tenacious in their pursuit of information and discoveries. In 1996, the website IndyFan debuted a section for anyone to post findings or knowledge about Indy’s gear. A year later, Jones Equipment Shoppe emerged, with its founder calling numerous outlets and vendors to determine which brands Paramount Studios used for the fedora and other gear. Other sites like those followed, supplying message boards and FAQs about any information they’d found, creating a subculture of random tips and announcements.
By the time IndyGear launched in 1999, debates about which hat companies were responsible for the fedora’s design reached a fever pitch. Two of the site’s founders, Lee Keppler and Mark Cross, had contributed to the fervor early, investigating brands and materials throughout the 1980s. The pair had looked for the original hatmaker (among other clothing designers) by calling Paramount prop masters, which led them to Herbert Johnson, whose then sales manager Richard Swales stated adamantly that the company’s “Poet” model fedora was the exact kind used in Raiders. But the Poet had been discontinued after the high-end British hatter underwent in-house changes and stopped using its original felts and blocks, the tools used by milliners to shape hats. In its absence, imitators filled the market: re-creations from higher-end companies like Hats Direct and Adventure Supply, and cheaper knock-offs made by Dorfman Pacific and Stetson, which had acquired licenses to sell their products as the Indiana Jones fedora. The alternatives appeased some, but for many others, they only intensified the hunger for pure authenticity.
To complicate these pursuits, IndyGear’s documented information, taken from first- and secondhand sources, was sometimes refuted by other, later interviews, leading to discrepancies about designs and manufacturers. “We’re already seeing revisions to the history of the props and gear because of the memories of the people that gave us the information. ... Their recollections have changed today,” says Erin Dickey, a longtime Raiders fan still helping administer IndyGear. “Occasionally we get more information and we go back and fix and tidy up a little bit because there’s always something we can learn.”
In certain cases, sellers began fabricating their involvement with the gear for their own gains, and in the early 2000s, Landis got wind of one of these claims. She navigated message boards after reading about a user that took credit for the jacket’s design and had been profiting from it. She debated engaging in the conversation. “When something becomes iconic, it seems like it was always there … that it was not part of a mode of production, that no human hand touched it,” she says. As a costume designer, Landis knows her name is never on the clothing, but she felt she needed to set the record straight. “I stopped the insanity,” she laughs. “I just said, ‘C’mon, if you want information I’m very happy to share, but please go away because you didn’t make the jacket and no, you didn’t make the hats.’”
Considering the dedication, expertise, and passion that some have devoted to Indy’s fedora, it was only a matter of time before their online hobbies turned into actual jobs. Most notable was longtime IndyGear member Steve Delk, who went from amateur hatmaker to Hollywood hotshot. After making his bones with an Australian hat company at the start of the millennium, the cabinetmaker-turned-hatter tightened his skills in the years that followed, reblocking and cleaning old hats for fans. Around 2005, as he searched for an original Raiders model, Delk was sent a 1989 Herbert Johnson Poet from Mike Marosy, a site user; on closer inspection, he determined that its brim and felt were movie-accurate. “I used it as a template for my own dimensional cuts,” he told IndyGear. “I immediately tweaked my block after working with his.” With a partner, he formed Adventurebilt Hat Company, and became renowned for producing hats that skewed closer to the original Raiders Poet than any other brand. By 2007, the accuracy impressed costume designer Bernie Pollack enough that he granted Delk the honor of supplying all the fedoras for the latest Indy sequel, 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
“Everyone on the site was blown away by it. To actually make the hat,” Dickey says. “We were thrilled for Steve, because Steve was one of these originals, and Steve used to post constantly about the stuff he’d found out. … To quote Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, we were ‘as giddy as a schoolboy.’”
Around the same time Delk’s fedora was selected for Crystal Skull, John Penman started his own Indy-style hat business. A fitness trainer who then became a firefighter, Penman turned to a new passion after injuring his back. Before becoming one of Delk’s first customers (and developing a lasting friendship), he’d scanned Indy forums for the elusive Raiders hat and fell into a familiar online trap. “Someone would claim they had the hat. OK great, this is it! You buy it, wait for it to get there, and then you put the hat on, you put on the movie, and then you look and you go, ‘Well, that’s not it.’ I’ve done that so many times,” he says. “When I got Steve’s, that itch was finally scratched.”
With Delk’s guidance and block measurements, Penman honed his skills for more than two years, learning how to craft a fedora that perfectly resembles Indiana Jones’s. He’s since gained popularity on Indy message boards, building a small but profitable business out of supplying fans with bespoke hats that carry on the Raiders legacy. “Every time an Indy movie comes out, sales triple for 10 years,” he says. And with Delk retiring from making fedoras, Penman is now the keeper of the Indy fedora—both spiritually and literally, as Delk gave Penman the Adventurebilt blocks and designs he used for Crystal Skull. “To really replicate an Indiana Jones hat, specifically the Raiders hat, you have to have two things,” Penman says. “You have to be a great hatmaker, and you have to be a fan. Not one or the other.”
As for the originator of the hat, Herbert Johnson, the company has also made it a mission to restore its place in the Indy market. After bad buying decisions in the 1980s and 1990s, Herbert Johnson struggled financially and changed ownership, moving addresses multiple times and eventually outsourcing manufacturing to a variety of large companies. In 2016, however, the shop returned to the bespoke business, eventually led by hatting department manager Michelle Poyer-Sleeman. In her quest to replicate the Raiders wooden foundations, she began remastering old blocks from storage—but she also happened upon some luck.
In 2017, fellow Brit Mark Harvey heard that Herbert Johnson had returned to making its own hats and called Poyer-Sleeman about an order. The two began chatting about their shared love for Indiana Jones, and Harvey divulged his personal history with the hat. After seeing Raiders multiple times as a teenager in the theater, Harvey had bought two fedoras from Stetson in 1986. Not long after the purchase, he caught a late-night television segment on Herbert Johnson’s history with the movie and realized the hats he’d bought were knock-offs. He immediately called Herbert Johnson and placed a handful of orders. “When I saw the first two hats, they looked like Rolls-Royces compared to the cheap, tacky, small Stetson hats I had purchased,” he says. “They were new but looked old. They were beautiful.” He would eventually purchase more than 30 hats over the years, sending some to friends and preserving seven that remained unworn.
The oldest untouched Poet in his collection dates back to around 1986, the first year he’d started ordering them. When Poyer-Sleeman heard that, she asked if she could see it. With his permission, she drove five hours to inspect it and record the proper measurements. It’s been “an essential part of her research,” she says, and has helped return Herbert Johnson closer to its roots. “I have lost count of how many people come to me and tell me this is their dream come true,” she says. “To create and work for someone with such passion and excitement is beyond wonderful, and I get to do this and meet these people every day.”
Not everybody can pull off wearing a Raiders fedora. Penman will be the first to tell you the design isn’t optimal for his face. Still, when he gets numerous orders from customers hoping they can dress like Indy, he does what he can to tweak the hat and highlight their proportions. “I don’t want to break their heart,” he says. “I’m not going to deny them.”
Those requests are common because, as Penman knows, the Raiders fedora remains a special obsession for so many, an artifact of love. And while moviegoers and hatmakers will never be able to outrun boulders or shake off dangerous thieves, the quest to replicate Indiana Jones’s aesthetic has allowed them to feel like the adventuring, relic-uncovering, wise-cracking protagonist, however briefly. “He’s a good guy, but he’s not that squeaky-clean good guy,” Penman says. “There’s something about that character that people just really love, and I think the hat is the symbol of him.”
Perhaps of greater, more obvious significance is the fedora’s direct resemblance to its fearless archaeologist—weathered, resilient, and good-looking. Whether wearing or admiring its pinched crown and floppy brim, it’s nearly impossible not to think of Harrison Ford, who brought to life the slick, resourceful, and cunning persona so many aspire to inhabit. “I know there’s so much transference that happens with fandom—and the same thing with cosplay—and it’s real and it’s important,” Landis says. “Harrison is responsible for the embodiment of the hero, and so attractive in so many ways, not with a shred of arrogance but with plenty of humor. I think it’s wonderful how it attached to him.”
“We owe [Landis] a great deal,” Penman says, “because she took a concept drawing and she brought it to reality, and it’s absolutely staggering.”
Landis, however, laughs at the idea that she’s responsible for an entire subculture. The fedora fascination amazes her, but it doesn’t change her feelings about that time in her life, when she was hungrily bouncing from gig to gig. Now 68, Landis is just grateful for the opportunity to have turned a hat into something far bigger than she ever could have imagined. And, maybe she feels a little glad to be able to settle the debate and solidify the fedora’s mythology once and for all. “It’s weird being me,” she says. “Thank goodness that I am still alive to say ‘I designed it!’”
An earlier version of this piece misidentified Fuller’s earth as fool’s earth.
Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com, and The New York Times.