Doffing the flat cap
An iconic item, writes Sarah Fitzpatrick
The tweed lid’s popularity is soaring and, as Sarah Fitzpatrick discovers, mainstream culture has played a part in its success
Before a glowering sky, in a three-piece suit and with piercing blue eyes beneath the peak of his tweed cap, Cillian Murphy (who plays Thomas Selby) is publicity-shot gold. The Peaky Blinders television series has garnered a cult following, succeeded in making Birmingham cool and, according to the Daily Mail, is responsible for “flat-cap frenzy! Period gangland drama sends sales of traditional tweed headgear soaring by 83%.” So caps are back in fashion but we’ve seen this all before, apart from the Thomas Shelby element, which is admittedly welcome. The tale of the cap is rather longer than that of a certain criminal gang in Birmingham, no matter how many series it runs to.
As described in The Manor and Manorial Records (London 1912) via the Worshipful Company of Woolmen, “Queen elizabeth [I] was concerned to encourage the wool trade in her realm: and it was to stimulate the trade in wool that an Act was passed in 1572 ordering everyone over the age of six, not having lands to the value of 20 marks a year, to ‘wear on Sundays and holidays a cap of wool, knit and dressed in england’ the penalty for disobedience being a fine of 3s/4d”. This was not an entirely selfless act of Good Queen Bess riding to the aid of Britain’s toiling farmers. Wool generated valuable taxes for the crown and history relates her reign was a glorious, but not inexpensive, one.
So should we be thanking the sabre rattling of the Spanish for what has become one of the most ubiquitous, resilient and British of head coverings? No, that would be too shocking but it might have been a catalyst for the spread of a garment that has endured for centuries. essential everyman headwear, it is almost impossible to imagine great swathes of British manhood without a flat cap placed firmly on their heads. When men were expected to wear a hat whenever they were out of doors, a tweed cap was the obvious choice. A good tweed cap is warm, secure (due to its ergonomic wedge shape) and able to stand up to the heaviest of wear. I am reliably informed by Tim Booth of the British Wool Marketing Board that an untreated fleece will last two years buried underground (which you might consider doing to help the orchard fruit), illustrating the fact that tweed is an excellent longterm investment.
Dapper cap-maker David Saxby tells me that, “in edwardian times, half-a-dozen girls could produce 500 caps in a week”, which is impressive. Saxby admits that he can create two or three caps from half a metre of tweed left over from cutting a suit and that all the ingredients of a perfect tweed cap can be found among the “scraps” of other trades. Leather offcuts from saddlery are the perfect stiffener for the peak (no ghastly plastic poking through, please), hessian serves as lining and the hat ribbon may be left over from corset making, which sounds like recycling worthy of the Swiss family robinson. But perhaps the most surprising thing about the peaked cap is its resilience in the face of considerable change.
After the Second World War, hat wearing was in decline, a casualty of the nonconformity of post-war youth or the result, according to Saxby, of an article published in the 1950s that proclaimed “doffing one’s hat” as a cause of premature baldness. Since men decided it might be perfectly possible, and even acceptable, to step outdoors without a hat, the fortunes of various styles of headgear have waxed and waned but none seems to cling more tenaciously to the British pate than a flat cap. It has kept a place in our hearts, and on our heads, where other hats have gone the way of spats and canes.
Anyone who has ventured into the British countryside over the past couple of centuries will have become well acquainted with the tweed cap. This upwardly mobile garment began by conquering the working man and became an integral part of the hard-wearing uniform of labourers. from the fields it migrated to towns, on to the heads of men during the Industrial revolution and seemed destined for greater things than ploughing, mining or milling.
There was no looking back for our heroic garment once it warmed heads destined for crowns. Just as practical for the leisured sportsman as for the working classes, flat caps were taken up in the field by a beacon of sporting fashion, edward VII. Warm and waterresistant, it was just the thing to top off a kilt at Balmoral or breeks at Sandringham while enjoying a King’s Ginger. And if that were not endorsement enough, the Duke of Windsor was also a fan, his informality making a cap and fair Isle sweater very much the ton. flatcap wearing crossed over from practical to purely fashionable, which takes us back to those Peaky Blinders.
Having established that a flat cap has been de rigueur for centuries, it is not surprising there have been some changes of style along the way. In the wake of the Shelbys, a vogue for eight-piece, baker-boy caps has swept the nation. This style was also popular in the ’20s and ’30s – think The Great Gatsby – in which robert redford sported a white flat cap. As skirt lengths go up and down, so caps seem to become more and less voluminous. Larger styles tend to flatter fuller faces but beware of tipping into tam o’shanter territory. You want to look more countryman than comedian.
for some, as with furniture, there is a belief that caps should be passed down the generations. for those buying, it’s an extremely important decision.
Yvette Jelfs is a millinery maven and, being based in Scotland, has a fine eye for tweed as well as feathers. “Having a cap made to measure doesn’t cost much more and gives you a best friend for life,” she assures me. No cap worth its salt should be blown off and once you’ve had a few adventures together Jelfs can give much-loved caps a new lease of life by stretching them after they’ve been soaked. Her most important advice is to buy British and never wear one back to front. “There is nothing worse,” she adds.
David Saxby noticed a vogue for ladies wearing flat caps seriously about 25 years ago and they are now “worn by all girls that want to look country” Jelfs confirms. With more and more women shooting, the trend is set to continue.
The world’s oldest hatter, Lock & Co, is celebrating its 340th year of business and has sold caps “right from the beginning”, explains managing director Susan Simpson. She is quick to point out that the fuller eight-piece cap, “had already come to prominence before the Peaky Blinders”, with footballers such as Ian Wright and David Beckham wearing them. Lock & Co also sells a six-piece cap and has a whole range of more “fashion-forward” pieces for the urban cap wearer. Simpson believes
that, “[Lock & Co] have to move quickly to give people what they want”. Its classic Turnberry is still beloved of guns and trainers but Jeremy Shaw of Carter’s Country Wear in Yorkshire has also witnessed a “steering away from the traditional flat cap [with people] getting more adventurous in their styles”. He has seen a move away from deerstalkers to the Peaky Blinder bonnets.
Sharp eyes at Lawrence & Foster noticed that not all the Peaky Blinders are wearing the same style. “Some have bands, some are fuller than others,” Robert Fairbairn tells me. The business was started by his father-in-law and sells Yorkshire-made caps across the country.
There are so many variations that it is no wonder there is some confusion when trying to put a name to a particular style of cap. Between the slimmer-fitting traditional county cap, often favoured by hunt staff and retired colonels; the bond, generally found keeping trainers dry in the paddock; the full cut or rounder dustbin lid, mostly at rural branches of Knight Frank; and the currently adored eight-piece or baker (should that be paper?) boy look, there are many more than “fifty shades of grey”.
All we can be sure of is the flat cap’s enduring popularity. Olney Headwear in Luton has been making hats for more than 100 years and its Hereford cap sells in excess of 5,000 units every month. It’s a traditional flat cap, not an eight piece, so nothing to do with television endorsements.
No matter the style or name, the secret of the flat cap’s success must be that it is so useful and easy to wear. Some doubt has been cast on the sewing of razor blades into the Peaky Blinders’ caps by Birmingham historian Carl Chinn but even if we discount it as a weapon, a cap still fits neatly under ear protectors, keeps the rain out of your eyes, holds a good quantity of blackberries and, we hope, will one day be used to wave joyfully over a hunt follower’s head.
The idea of having a close relationship with your cap seems to strike a chord. Jeremy Shaw of Carter’s Country Wear maintains: “[a cap] is one of the hardest things to sell, harder than a £300 shooting coat, as you are trying to replace an old friend”. Perhaps that is why it seems impossible to find an alternative to that perfect cap that belonged to your father.
Much like country sports, the flat cap crosses every divide in class or county. This small scrap of fabric has become something of an icon and has been adopted as a signifier by such various individuals as comic-book urchins and country gentlemen. Poacher and peer are dressed alike, especially when they are working dogs.
From left: characters John, Thomas and Arthur Shelby from the BBC series Peaky Blinders
Above left: Muirfield and Turnberry tweed caps from Lock & Co. Clockwise from below: Edward VII in 1892; Paul Newman as Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956); Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby (1974)
prince philip acting as polo referee at smith’s lawn polo Club in June 1973
They wear it well:
Princes of Wales
(Edward VII and Duke of Windsor) Thomas Shelby
HRH The Duke of Edinburgh Huntsmen everywhere
“Del Boy” Trotter
The look To avoid:
Mickey Rooney - over puffed and over one ear
Most Unlikely Cap wearer:
Brian Johnson of AC/DC
www.davidsaxby.co.uk www.lawrenceandfoster.co.uk www.lockhatters.co.uk www.olney-headwear.co.uk www.yvettejelfs.com www.carterscountrywear.com