I’m sorry. I have no idea on earth what she meant. I neglected to note the context when I transcribed this gem—because, I would imagine, I was laughing so hard I couldn’t hold the pen any longer.
Thinking of hats like those worn at Prince William’s wedding by the women in the British royal family makes the sentence even more hilarious, unless the hats were intended to inspire hysteria among the poor and thus render them incapable of assault.
It’s possible that my student was writing about Katherine Mansfield’s poignant short story “The Garden Party.” Still wearing her garden-party hat, young Laura carries a basket of leftovers down into the working-class village where a man lies dead. Class-consciousness, self-consciousness, and a somewhat romanticized awe are all expressed in what she softly says to the deceased: “Pardon my hat.” But how could a reader imagine Laura had donned the hat for self-protection?
Tempting now to speculate on who’s referred to by “their.” One can find the possibility that the writer means rich women protect themselves from the poor by putting on the hats of the poor—as camouflage? because the hats of the poor are thick and would cushion any blows? because the poor wouldn’t do violence to their own hats, regardless of the heads wearing them?
But all of that is just playing around, and distracts from the delicious lunacy of the main utterance. When I was in my early teens, my mother tried to enforce the rules of her own generation in her insistence that I wear gloves and a hat when I went to New York City. Could she have been thinking those wisps of propriety would protect me from unsavory passers-by?