What chapeau am I doffing?February 24, 2016
“From Winston Churchill’s homburg to Charlie Chaplin’s bowler, much of Britain’s history can be told through the headgear worn by its best-known politicians, performers and literary characters. Hats have evolved enormously since the days when their primary function was to protect their wearers’ heads from bad weather and weapons.
By Victorian times, they had become part of every self-respecting gentleman’s attire—a man would no more leave the house without a hat than he would without his trousers. Hats became a symbol of class and occupation, from London’s bowler-clad bankers and stockbrokers to the cloth caps worn by the country’s manual labourers on farms and in factories.
Even Britain’s best-loved fictional rogues have trademark hats: the Artful Dodger’s battered top hat, Ebenezer Scrooge’s night cap and Del Boy’s flat cap, to name but a few. Customs such as hat-tipping and launching mortar boards at graduation are deeply embedded in the social and cultural fabric of the country and, although 21st-century wardrobes might contain fewer hats than their predecessors, social occasions such as Royal Ascot and the Henley Royal Regatta ensure that, when it comes to hat heritage, Britain still takes the crown.
The first bowler was made in 1849 by James Lock & Co’s chief hatter, Thomas Bowler, for Edward Coke, a nephew of the 1st Earl of Leicester (of the second creation) of Holkham Hall in Norfolk. Coke wanted a close-fitting, low-crowned hat to protect the estate gamekeepers’ heads from low-hanging branches and attacks from poachers. It’s thought that, when he went to London to view the hat, he stamped twice on the crown to determine its durability, nodded in approval and paid 12 shillings for it. The estate’s gamekeepers still wear bowlers on shoot days.
There has never been a more sophisticated and dominant design than the top hat, which replaced tricornes and bicornes as a status symbol for gentlemen at the turn of the 19th century. Apparently, when the haberdasher John Hetherington donned the first topper on the streets of London in 1797, children screamed, women fainted and Hetherington was arrested for wearing a hat ‘calculated to frighten timid people’.
The difference between a trilby and its big brother, the fedora, comes down to the size of the brim and the nature of the crease at the crown the former has a sharper crown and a narrower brim. It was named after a fictional character the eponymous heroine of George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby. It became a wardrobe staple when men swapped their formal, stiff hats for something lighter and more comfortable.
Named after the heroine of a French play written by Victorien Sardou in 1882 and made famous by American icons such as Frank Sinatra and Humphrey Bogart, the soft-brimmed, felt fedora made its way into British men’s wardrobes in the mid 1920s. It was also popularised by Edward VIII, who chose to wear one on royal engagements. Deerstalker/stalker
This two-flapped hat was a vital part of a Victorian gentleman’s country ensemble, worn principally for shooting and especially for deerstalking. Although indelibly associated with Sherlock Holmes, there is not a single mention of a deerstalker in any of Conan Doyle’s stories. It was Sidney Paget who gave the sleuth a hat and cape in his illustrations for The Strand magazine—they first appear in The Boscombe Valley Mystery in 1891.
Genuine Panama hats are made exclusively in Ecuador, where they’re woven from the straw-like stems of the toquilla palm. Named in honour of the workers who built the Panama Canal and wore them for protection against the sun, the hats became a British summer staple by the early 20th century. The black band around the base is said to originate from 1901, as a mark of respect following the death of Queen Victoria.
This distinctive hat, with its curled brim and uniform dent running from back to front, was supposedly popularised by Edward VII, who spied it on a trip to the German town of Bad Homburg in the early 1880s. Winston Churchill was also a big fan and the dapper detective Hercule Poirot rarely left the house without his.”