Doff­ing the flat cap

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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

Paul New­man

Robert Red­ford

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

stock­ists

www.david­saxby.co.uk www.lawrence­and­fos­ter.co.uk www.lock­hat­ters.co.uk www.ol­ney-head­wear.co.uk www.yvet­te­jelfs.com www.carter­scoun­try­wear.com

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