For all of the laughs that Seinfeld gave us over its nine seasons on NBC, there was a great, if underrated, theme of bizarre fashion that delivered some of the show’s funniest moments. The Puffy Shirt ruined the Low-Talker’s career before it became a big hit with some homeless buccaneers. David Puddy took on the man-fur trend before shining a light on the ridiculously wonderful leather 8-ball jacket. Even Sue Ellen Mischke became a trendsetter by turning a classic white bra into a stylish top. But not a single article of clothing – even Morty’s beltless trench coat, The Executive — holds a candle to the good, old Urban Sombrero.
Thanks to some terrible Star Trek-inspired advice from Kramer in season eight’s first episode, “The Foundation,” Elaine believed in herself as the acting publisher of J. Peterman’s catalog. That was obviously a huge mistake. She was a doofus for thinking that she could handle her boss’s duties, and that was more than evident when she unveiled her ridiculous hat. However, even as one man in the episode revealed that he lost his job because of the Urban Sombrero — “I never thought a hat would destroy my life” — someone actually wanted to create and sell this hat in 2016. That someone? The real J. Peterman, with help from John O’Hurley, the actor who played J. Peterman on Seinfeld.
Back in April, Peterman and O’Hurley launched a Kickstarter campaign to bring the Urban Sombrero to life. At the time, we reached out to O’Hurley to find out “Why now?” and “Why, at all?” but he was unfortunately unavailable. (Sad, as we hoped to hear him say, “The horror… the horror” one more time.) Regardless, we were pulling for their campaign to be a success, but it was all for naught. While 720 backers pitched in to make this hat a reality, it fell far short of the $500,000 goal when the campaign expired on May 20. Truly, the horror… the horror.
The way O’Hurley talked about the campaign effort, it sounded like it was simply a chance for Seinfeld fans to own a replica of the show’s history and unlikely anyone would wear this giant hat to work and business casual affairs. “It’s a replica of a really, really good sight gag,” he told the Boston Globe in April, but seeing as O’Hurley actually helped the real J. Peterman bring his company back from the dead in 2001 – it went bankrupt in 1999, not long after Seinfeld aired its final episode — they presumably wanted this to be a big hit and help spur some sales in 2016 by launching additional items. But even now, after the campaign has failed, the question remains: Would anyone actually wear this thing?
For answers we called on the real experts, the men who created the Urban Sombrero in the first place: Seinfeld writers Alec Berg and Jeff Schaffer. Just as they helped us get to the bottom of the real story of Festivus, we asked them to tell us why anyone, even the biggest of Seinfeld fans, would ever want to wear something so absurd. For starters, would they wear the Urban Sombrero?
“If they sent me one I would certainly put it on a shelf in my office and display it,” Berg says. “I don’t know if I would wear it in public. I would love to have one.” Schaffer, however, is a little more open to the notion of sporting a giant hat. “I’m not a big hat guy because I still have all my hair,” he laughs. “But I’ll tell you what, I would certainly wear it after a big lunch. I would have no problem tilting that thing down and taking a siesta.”
Neither writer was aware of the real Peterman’s effort to bring the Urban Sombrero to life, which, again, is probably a good indicator of why it failed. In fact, Schaffer was so fond of the idea that he volunteered himself and Berg to write copy for the Kickstarter campaign. And if you’re going to bring this idea to the masses, shouldn’t that have been in the plans all along? Wouldn’t you want the people who wrote this terrible-but-hilarious idea into Elaine’s head in the first place?
The idea came to Berg and Schaffer after Larry David left Seinfeld prior to the eighth season. Schaffer says that he and Berg were sure that David would return until he finally didn’t, and so they had to figure out how to deal with certain aspects of George’s personal life after they killed off Susan, while also finding something fun and new for Elaine. Since they had often written the stories involving Peterman, even when David was running the show, they thought she could be doing something work-related. So, they sent her to Mexico on Peterman’s dime to be a terrible employee who returns with one really bad idea.
“Basically, Elaine had been playing all summer,” Schaffer recalls of the episode’s first draft. “She had been traveling through Mexico on Peterman’s dime and she was supposed to be getting ideas, but really she was having a great old time so she didn’t have anything to pitch. She doesn’t know how to do this job, and so we wanted her to come up with an idea that was the stupidest yet most semi-plausible fashion thing that she could. That’s how the Urban Sombrero came to be. We wanted it to seem like someone could really do this. I don’t know it’s any stupider than jeggings or high-waisted jeans. But we wanted something that she could also wear. We wanted her to wear it later so we thought maybe some sort of hat or boot. Then we just came up with the idea for the Urban Sombrero, which seems like a truly terrible idea that someone might actually do.”
The writers loved the idea that this hat was something a business professional, like Elaine, would wear at work when she wanted to take a nap. Schaffer still recalls the description they wrote for the catalog, although it didn’t make it into the episode’s final script:
The afternoon sun scorches through my office window. I’ve got deadlines but the mind wanders after a heavy lunch. I lean back, put my feet on the desk and reach for my Urban Sombrero. Evelyn, hold my calls.
Going back even further, the idea to mock the J. Peterman brand specifically came from David and Jerry Seinfeld. “We just loved the language and it was so fun to write this,” Schaffer explains. “You’re selling a scarf or a sock but you’re telling a story about some spice market in Rangoon. And then, combine that with [O’Hurley’s] voice, it was very fun to do these. He had a much different rhythm than everyone else. Peterman doesn’t sound like anybody else on the show at all, so you got to write different stuff and these very florid tales that made it really fun. There was a Santiago Sock that Elaine was trying to come up with. It was a great combination of highfalutin’ and silly.”
“The catalog was absurd,” Berg adds. “Every garment had some elaborate story about riding in a dugout canoe in the tribal area of some absurd South American country, and how they came upon it and the poetic nature of the experience that led to encountering that garb. It was so absurd on its face. When I’m working on Silicon Valley now we get so much mileage out of just taking real things and putting them in the show. People go, ‘Oh that’s so funny, that thing,’ and you go, ‘Oh no, that’s real. We didn’t make that up.’ The Peterman catalog was one of those things at the time. We could have just put the real Peterman catalog in there and people would be like, ‘That’s so absurd, what you guys made up.’ It was good grist for comedy.”
(Speaking of Silicon Valley, Berg admits that they’ve had a discussion along the lines of, “What if there was a real Tres Commas Tequila?” We’ll definitely keep an eye out for that Kickstarter campaign.)
The real Peterman could take a joke, as the writers recall the company being fond of the attention. “Loved it,” Schaffer says, noting that you can’t pay for the kind of publicity that came with being mentioned on Seinfeld each week. Of course, that free publicity wasn’t out of love and affection. They were really making fun of everything that J. Peterman had to offer.
“They were enormously pleased with the exposure but we were really mocking them, so I’m guessing, if you ran that company at the time, on the one hand, we’re getting massive amounts of free exposure. 26 million people a week were watching that show. But the flip side is your exposure is people are mocking and deriding your product,” Berg laughs. “But I guess it’s free advertising, so I have to imagine that they were pleased that we were doing it. They allowed us to do it. Legally I think they could have said ‘no’ because we were not complimentary to how that business was run. J. Peterman, the character, was a mess.”
Let’s look beyond the Urban Sombrero, though, and reevaluate all of Seinfeld’s fashion moments. If these writers had to choose one of the show’s most ridiculous outfits or items to wear, what would it be? For Berg, it’s less about one piece and more about the overall wardrobe.
“Kramer’s thrift store look made him distinct then, and a few years later that became the normal look,” he says. “I feel like his look, of the four of them, is the least dated. You see Elaine and her saddle shoes and Jerry and his tight jeans with the tucked in oxford and sneakers and George and his pleated khakis. Those are more dated looks, I think, and Kramer’s kind of vintage.”
However, for Schaffer there’s simply one item that he’d wear with pride: “I’d probably put on the puffy shirt, get a little swashbuckle in my life. Why not? Who doesn’t want to feel like a pirate every once and a while?”
Every season of Seinfeld is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and via streaming on Hulu.
This is an updated version of a post that originally ran in June of 2016