Ernst’s appreciation for visual and linguistic puns was likely fostered by Sigmund Freud’s book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905). Here, Ernst overpainted a page from a millinery catalogue showing women’s hats printed in an orderly grid. He added more cut-and-pasted hats to form the phallic tower at the left. This visual pun relates to Freud’s identification of the hat—the requisite accessory of the bourgeois man—as a common symbol representing repressed desire, adding new meaning and gender ambiguity to the cliché inscribed on the work, “C’est le chapeau qui fait l’homme” (The hat makes the man).
from Max Ernst: Beyond Painting, September 23, 2017-January 1, 2018
"One rainy day in 1919," Ernst wrote, "my excited gaze was provoked by the pages of a printed catalogue. The advertisements illustrated objects relating to anthropological, microscopical, psychological, mineralogical, and paleontological research. Here I discovered the elements of a figuration so remote that its very absurdity provoked in me a sudden intensification of my faculties of sight..." All that was necessary, he realized, was subtly to modify and rearrange these images. "These changes, no more than docile reproductions of what was visible within me, recorded a faithful and fixed image of my hallucination. They transformed the banal pages of advertisement into dramas that revealed my most secret desires."
Like Man Ray's use of machine images as a way of musing on the loss of instinctive sexuality, or [George] Grosz's giving his friend a machine heart, Ernst's use of mechanical illustrations to tell of autobiographical fantasies and hallucinations reveals that characteristic Dada duality in which modern and instinctive worlds collide. Inscribed on this image of anthropomorphic eroticism is the legend: "Seed-covered stacked-up man, seedless waterformer, ('edelformer'), well-fitting nervous system also tightly fitted nerves! (The hat makes the man, style is the tailor.)"...Ernst, that most iconographically inventive—and literary—of the Dadaists, erects from the subject of hats a phallic fantastic construction in combined human and plant-life form. He had been a student of psychology before the First World War, and had indeed read [Sigmund] Freud. But if we see in his work the obsessive self-regard of a Freudian age, we also, I think, see that when he inspected his fantasies, he found them drolly humorous. At least, that is the impression provided by this massive set of perambulating phalli, satirically sexual mutations of [Giorgio] de Chirico's cold mannequins, transparently blundering about their little stage.
from John Elderfield, The Modern Drawing: 100 Works on Paper from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1983, p. 130
Pictures of ordinary hats cut out of a catalogue are stacked one atop the other in constructions that resemble both organic, plantlike forms and anthropomorphic phalluses. With the inscription, "seed-covered stacked-up man seedless waterformer ('edelformer') well-fitting nervous system also tightly fitted nerves! (the hat makes the man) (style is the tailor)," Ernst incorporates verbal humor into this subversive visual pun.
The artist was a major figure of the Dada group, which embraced the concepts of irrationality and obscure meaning. The Hat Makes the Man illustrates the use of mechanical reproductions to record Ernst's own hallucinatory, often erotic visions. The origin of this collage is a sculpture made from wood hat molds that Ernst created in 1920 for a Dada exhibition in Cologne. The repetition of the hat, indicative of part of the bourgeois uniform, suggests the Dadaist view of modern man as a conformist puppet. Thus, in true Dada fashion, Ernst combines the contradictory elements of an inanimate object with references to man and to nature; symbols of social conventionality are equated with sexually charged ones.
from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 88