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The return of the hat - Joseph Connolly

Blog | By Joseph Connolly | Dec 29, 2023

Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders, 2018

Joseph Connolly raises his fedora to the great modern hat revival

Oldies of a certain vintage may remember when the sight of an unadorned male head was remarkable.

Men’s hats were everywhere, as any old film or newsreel will amply demonstrate. Throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, a gentleman leaving home without a hat, while the sin was not quite on a par with omitting to pull on his trousers, would still occasion censorious comment. He would be seen to be improperly dressed.

This convention had to do less with protection from the elements than with the necessary demonstration of class, rank and manners. Men’s clothes pretty quickly informed you what sort of person you were dealing with; the hat alone was an instant and infallible indicator.

The cloth cap was indelibly associated with the working classes. This image was later consolidated by Reg Smythe’s Andy Capp. The gleaming black, silk topper became shorthand for a toff – like Lord Snooty in the Beano. In between, there was every variety of headgear, suitable for all seasons or occasions, each befitting the status of the wearer. The hat had to be politely raised, or at the very least touched, whenever a lady was encountered.

Most trades and professions were wedded to a certain sort of hat. So you could instantly tell what people did for a living. The services wore them. The mitre and the academic mortarboard were worn. The bowler hat (with rolled umbrella) became the trademark of the civil service or of a chap who was ‘something in the City’.

Most other sorts of worker also had their own distinctive headgear: postmen, train drivers and bus conductors – even the gas man and the railway porter – all sported a variety of cap with a patent peak and badge. They – and we – knew exactly where they stood.

No children’s dressing-up kit was worth its salt without the headgear. The cowboy hat, Davy Crockett cap, policeman’s helmet and pirate’s tricorne were among the favourites. All of them made a welcome change from the school cap, which was still very much a force.

Time moved on, and social codes began to relax (some would say unravel). For the gentleman, the spats, gloves and walking cane were the first to go. The hat was tipped, as it were, to follow. John Betjeman wrote about the winds of change in his poem Death of King George V, with the extraordinary sight of the son and heir Edward VIII arriving bare-headed at the airport:

Old men who never cheated, never doubted,

Communicated monthly, sit and stare

At the new suburb stretched beyond the run-way

Where a young man lands hatless from the air.

Since the end of the Second World War, people have been prophesying the total extinction of the hat. Despite a severe decline, it still has quite remarkable staying power. During the 1950s, when wearing a hat was no longer de rigueur, it became more of a fashion choice. This led to a brief flurry of ‘Robin Hood hats’, complete with little feather, but that (mercifully) didn’t last too long.

Cliff Richard was most certainly not going to flatten his quiff with anything so square as a hat. Nor, a bit later, was President Kennedy, whose hairstyle, always on display, encouraged a severe decline in American hat sales. Kennedy’s hatlessness caused the Madison Avenue snap brim more or less to expire overnight.

On television, though, certain walks of life were inseparable from their trilbies – notably detectives and gangsters. In the 1960s, Bob Dylan and John Lennon set a fleeting vogue for a cap along the lines of the Breton fisherman’s headgear. By now, men’s long hair was seen as the ultimate crowning glory. It really did begin to look as if the days of the hat were numbered.

Towards the close of the 20th century, hats were hard to spot – like pipes, they had very much gone to ground. Aside from sporting events – the wedge-shaped tweed cap for shooting, the pork pie alive with fishing flies, the Henley boater and the Ascot topper – there was almost nothing around. The Soviet-style fur affair would occasionally emerge in winter, before the animal-rights police left it for dead. Apart from the odd oldie’s faithful trilby, that was more or less that.

And then something very awful happened: the mass surrender to, of all things, the American baseball cap by people who had never played baseball in their lives and never would. It is a very horrible thing indeed, especially when worn back to front. The hordes who did this regarded themselves as quirky, kooky and rebellious, as opposed to being mindless and unthinkingly conformist.

These days, as the stranglehold of the baseball cap is increasingly relaxed, all sorts of other hats are back in style. At the top end, Lock & Co, Britain’s oldest hatter, founded in 1676, supplying everyone from Nelson and Wellington to Churchill and the royals, is still going strong in St James’s.

My own hatter of choice for many years is Bates. A relative newcomer, around for a mere 124 years, it is now incorporated into Hilditch & Key, the excellent Jermyn Street shirtmaker, founded in 1899.

I very much favour their pure-beaver-fur fedora – lightweight, rather stylish and, miraculously, quite waterproof: the best you can get. You now quite often see this style of hat, always popular with the artier sort of fellow (such as Barry Humphries of this parish).

At the other end of the scale, just as in the old days, when cheapo hats were on sale at the seaside and funfairs, there are now vast piles of every sort in street markets and tourist magnets such as Camden Lock. There, hats and caps in every colour you can think of are quite as popular as tattoos and piercings. The baker-boy cap – as popularised by Peaky Blinders and David Beckham, who gets his from Bates – is a firm favourite, as are the variations on a straw hat or panama.

Beating the lot of them, though, is the terrible ‘beanie’ – that knitted tea-cosy atrocity, with or without pompom, which renders the wearer instantly imbecilic. John Lewis, stalwart of Middle England, runs to 35 of the things, all looking pretty much the same, as against 11 baseball caps, nine traditional tweed caps and just the two trilbies. It is a similar story over at Marks and Spencer: so much for Middle England.

Several famous and legendary hats are unlikely to trouble us again – the deerstalker, as never worn by Sherlock Holmes; the bowler (only ever looking good on John Steed of The Avengers and the Homepride men). Still, it is clear that the history of the hat is far from over. It isn’t yet time to put a lid on it.