Adventures in headware
The deerstalker and fore-and-aft are now seldom seen. Is it time for a revival?
Ettie Neil-gallacher traces the history of the deerstalker
For a hat with such a strong image, the deerstalker’s provenance is surprisingly opaque. It is, of course, synonymous in the public imagination with one particular figure: Sherlock Holmes (unless you’re a racing enthusiast, in which case John Mccririck may spring to mind, ear flaps flailing and whiskers catching the breeze). Throughout his numerous incarnations, from Basil Rathbone to Benedict Cumberbatch, Holmes has been unfailingly depicted on screen wearing one; it would be a brave director who had the temerity to jettison it in favour of a more contemporary titfer.
Yet the history of the deerstalker is not entirely clear, beyond it being yet another triumph of Victorian functionality and form. Stalking was a fashionable and much-admired pursuit. The Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1860 marvelled at the challenge stalking presented: “The skill of the deerstalker, in pursuit of the red deer, is not only dependant on a good use of the rifle, but is shewn in his ability to find and approach deer; to do which successfully requires the most unwearied perseverance.” Certain feathered hats were worn as early as the 1830s but for a recognisable deerstalker we have to wait 30 years, when they are mentioned in several novels. By 1870, deerstalkers were all the rage: hard-wearing and inconspicuous to the animals but practical and stylish.
They even spawned a spin-off, the foreand-aft, which became hugely popular during the course of the 20th century. Similar but without the ear-flaps, it was more of an all-purpose country hat but seems
to be in decline, with many retailers now focusing on what has become almost universally referred to as a Sherlock.
Yet Sir Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t portray Holmes as a fieldsports enthusiast, with no mention of his wearing a deerstalker in the stories. The closest references were in The Adventure of Silver Blaze, when Dr Watson comments on Holmes’ “ear-flapped travelling cap”, and in The Boscombe Valley Mystery, to “a close-fitting cloth cap”. Perhaps this was sufficient for Sidney Paget, the original illustrator in the 1890s, against the backdrop of the fashions of the time, for it was thus that both he, and Frederic Dorr Steele in America, chose to depict Holmes.
Given Holmes’s sartorial fastidiousness, it’s questionable whether he would have been sufficiently brazen as to wear one around Baker Street, but the image persists. Indeed, it has been good for business: hatters have traded on it for decades, often calling their model a ‘Sherlock’ and, adding to the confusion, calling their fore-and-aft, if they still make them, a deerstalker.
Some have noted an increase in sales of the Holmes-style deerstalker since it featured prominently in the most recent series of Sherlock on the
BBC. Rebecca Scott, who works in design and product development at Purdey’s, says that sales of the company’s Deer Stalker Sherlock Tweed Hat have grown from 11 three years ago to 31 in 2017, and that Cumberbatch’s portrayal may have been a factor. Purdey’s also sells a fore-and-aft as a Deer Stalker Tweed Hat. Both retail at £100 and while sales of the latter have been consistent, it is the Sherlock that is far more popular. Made for them by Lawrence & Foster in West Yorkshire in their own Manton tweed, Scott says that they may extend the range if demand continues.
Lawrence & Foster itself currently offers both a fore-and-aft, which it calls a Deer Stalker hat, and a Malton (Sherlock) hat with ear flaps, both for £54. By contrast, Robert Fairbairn says that sales are roughly 50:50 but notes it is the latter that has increased in popularity in recent years and is nudging ahead in 2018. Currently offered in 10 materials, he says that any tweed can be used, with much demand from “estates with game keepers who are the ones who are wearing them in earnest. They send in their estate tweeds to have them made up.”
Campbell’s of Beauly has also noted an increase, up to around 400 a year, with around 250 being sold to the 120-plus estates it works with. Selling both a Sherlock Holmes hat with ear flaps and a fore-and-aft deerstalker for £60, John Sugden, co-owner with his wife, Nicola, says that there’s much more demand for the former, which has been thus monikered for almost a century. The factory, for making all the tweed and clothes, is above the shop, while the hats are made up in Yorkshire. He attributes the “revival” of the Sherlock in part
to popular culture, citing television series Outlander: “people seem to love the Scottish, historical look, especially Americans”, with tourists accounting for around 10% of purchases.
So who else is buying the deerstalker and why is it experiencing a resurgence while the fore-and-aft seems to be in decline?
Tourists and novelty wearers aside, it seems both hats are still largely being bought for their original purpose – particularly north of the Border. Fairbairn estimates that around 80% of his customers buy both the Deer Stalker and Malton (Sherlock) hat, and do so for stalking and shooting, “but they’ll still wear them walking the dog”. He does, however, say that they are less popular with the younger generation. Sugden says that at Campbell’s of Beauly, in the heart of the Highlands, “in and amongst the great stalking estates such as Glen Affric, Strathconon, Strathvaich, Strathbran and Ralia”, around 80% again of purchasers are buying them for “country wear and associated pursuits”.
By contrast, in London, Lock & Co master hatter Jayesh Vaghela says that sales have remained consistent – a couple of deerstalkers are purchased every week – around 85% of these being bought by “the confident wearer” for stalking and shooting. Lock & Co discontinued its fore-and-aft around 10 years ago due to insufficient demand;
It seems both hats are still largely being bought for their original purpose
its Sherlock-style deerstalker comes in three colours and costs a hefty £155, which Vaghela says is justified by the quality of the fabric, the fit and the look.
The fore-and-aft still has its fans. Bryony Daniels, from Strathvaich estate, says she hardly sees them being worn, except when fishing. Yet 91-year-old John Marchington provides a ringing endorsement for the perks of the twin peaks, despite the popularity of the subtler tweed cap for shooting in England, explaining that they evolved in “wild” Scotland where the changeable weather necessitates a changeable hat, though “a really dirty-looking day is a day for ear flaps”. He has three fore-and-afts and has been wearing one for around 70 years. Last year, when fishing, one was eaten by his spaniel after a disagreement over a decomposing salmon. He “wouldn’t be without it”, the only disadvantage being that “when stalking and crawling on your belly, the rear flap catches on your collar and tips forward. If you ease it up, it then blows away.” By contrast, in England, the weather being milder “means one can get away with a cap. Socially, in England, the cap’s the thing. They won’t refuse to speak to you in a fore-andaft but they’ll think you’re a bit queer.”
Norma Holman of Hampshire-based Quality Clothing Company says that caps have become more popular because shooting has become more casual. “Nowadays, while the keepers are all dressed correctly, the same applies to very few of the guns. There used to be a protocol and it’s still a great garment, but things have changed.”
Keith Howman wore a fore-and-aft for more than 50 years for shooting and fishing, saying that in terms of practicality it knocked a cap into a cocked hat. “Other than on sunny days in the summer and at school, I wore one probably every day,” he recalls. He thinks its decline in favour of a tweed cap may at least in part be attributable to mail-order shopping, “which makes it much easier to make as a one-size-fits-all model, and would be impossible for a deerstalker”.
fit for purpose
It would seem that the Sherlockian deerstalker hasn’t suffered, because it is uniquely fit for purpose and offers a greater and more secure form of protection from the wild Scottish elements while also camouflaging the wearer. Scott summarises that “it’s their versatility that makes them appealing”, while Vaghela says the front peak protects the face from rain and sun, and the back peak allows the rain to run off. “The ear flaps give it a classic look but they’re also practical: they come down if it’s severely cold to keep the ears warm.”
Sugden points to their role as camouflage; “the fore and aft peaks allow enough cover when looking downwards to shield the white face from the deer as the stalker starts the long approach”. Daniels agrees, that “tweed breaks up block colour – stags will spot blond hair or a block of dark hair a mile off”.
David Thompson, a customer at Campbell’s of Beauly, has been wearing a deerstalker for the past 40 years, having worked as a keeper at Tomatin, near Inverness. He has around half a dozen and doesn’t mind when “they get a bit tatty”. The twin benefits of keeping him dry when shooting or stalking, especially lying down, and protecting his face from the sun are the key.
Daniels is a proud devotee of the Sherlock-style deerstalker. “It will keep the sun from your eyes and if you decide it’s too hot for a hat you can tie it to your belt – rather than folding it into your pocket and it falling out. Many a flat cap has been lost this way on the hill. The times of year that are ‘in season’ for stags and hinds especially tend to be cold, wet, windy and snowy. A deerstalker will keep you warm and dry, while keeping the wind out. The ribbons prevent you from having to chase after it when the wind takes it from your head without asking.” The extra coverage provided by the flaps also offers protection from the dreaded Scottish midges: “anything you can cover, you do”.
They’re hard-wearing, too. She’s had one for the past 10 years and while the ribbons are “starting to go” she reckons the tweed “just gets better with age”. Fairbairn argues that, “they get taken off and sat on and folded but they survive”. Vaghela has provided aftercare on decade-old deerstalkers; “the form itself hasn’t been damaged”. As Daniels notes wryly, “Once you start wearing a deerstalker, especially when it’s bolted under your chin, you will start to forgive it looking a little silly and learn to love the function.”
Top: a fore-and-aft hat – similar to a deerstalker – serves during a grouse day at Nat Sherwood in 1958 Above: a fine display of 19th-century lids
Left and below: fore-and-afts serve on a pheasant day in Wiltshire and a salmon day on the North Esk Right, top: Bryony Daniels opts for a deerstalker
The deerstalker is synonymous with Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional hero – pictured here at the Reichenbach Falls, as drawn by Frederic Dorr Steele – though whether Holmes actually wore a ‘Sherlock’ is debatable