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The Flat Cap on ... Hats

Recently The Flat Cap has been receiving questions about how he got his name. The simple answer is that he likes to wear a flat cap, but only sometimes. He also likes to wear a hat; but again only sometimes. A cap is a bit like a hat. Anyway all this cap and hat talk prompted The Flat Cap to look a bit more closely into hats and the reasons why people sometimes like to pop one on their head.

There are lots of names for hat type headgear. As well as hats there are caps, berets, bonnets, helmets, hoods, and wimples, to name but a few. The Flat Cap thinks “wimple” is a great word. You don’t see many wimples these days, but back in medieval times they were all the rage. Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath sported such an item of female finery. Go to Bath now and you’d be hard pushed to spot any of the townswomen wearing a wimple. Hats however are a much more common sight. If you were to witness any decent sized church wedding in Bath today there’s a good chance you’d see at least a handful of women in hats. Same goes for the men. People love an excuse to wear a hat, and being invited to a wedding is one of the best excuses going; that and a trip to a horse racing meeting. Nobody really knows where the idea for hats came from. The Flat Cap thinks it was probably when the first bald man decided he needed to keep his head warm. Equally it could have been that someone wanted protection from the rain whilst out hunting, or perhaps there was a wedding on somewhere and he didn’t want to look underdressed.

The Flat Cap on Hats

Rather than try to list every type of hat he could think of The Flat Cap came up with his top five.

The Top Hat is both literally and figuratively the top hat. Since the late eighteenth century they’ve been worn by those seeking to impress at formal occasions. It’s impractical and showy and as at home on an undertaker as it is on a wedding guest, or even a carol singer. And it’s the must have hat at Ascot Races every year. Gentlemen wear them. Uncle Sam always wears one, even if he was never an Ascot regular.

In second place is the Bowler Hat. It was created in 1850 to protect English game warden James Coke in the event that he fell off his horse whilst riding after poachers. Although there is no evidence that Mr. Coke was always falling off his horse, or being particularly clumsy the hat later became popular with Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin; all of whom used to lark about and do seemingly clumsy things – but for comic effect. Bank managers like Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army also wore one. Arthur Lowe would have made a better real life bank manager than Stan Laurel. The latter would just have just got you into another fine mess if entrusted with your life savings, and then Oliver Hardy would have had to have given him a playful slap, which wouldn’t really have got you your money back. Charlie Chaplin wouldn’t have made a good bank manager either as he was always too busy doing daft walks and bumping into things. That would have annoyed other bank workers and the mortgage advisors in the next room.

In third place The Flat Cap chose the Trilby or Fedora, as it is known elsewhere in the world. It’s been the favourite of movie tough guys from James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart through to Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones. In 1930s America you couldn’t be a proper Chicago gangster unless you owned one of these hats. Unfortunately they were also favoured by newspaper reporters which made their job a lot more dangerous. Today proper journalists like Piers Morgan don’t wear hats very much just in case they appear even more of a threat to society than they actually are.

In fourth place comes the Cowboy Hat. Inextricably linked with the American West it arrived there from Spain via Mexico where big brims and large crowns were popular amongst horsemen who needed protection from the elements and the low branches of trees. The best known cowboy hats were made by J.B. Stetson and by 1906 his factory was producing four million a year. General George Custer was wearing one when he met his death at Little Bighorn. Despite this decisive military defeat hat sales continued to grow.

In fifth place is the Fez. The Flat Cap thinks they look stylish. Legendary comedian Tommy Cooper wore one, and so apparently does the King of Morocco. Fez is also the second largest city in Morocco.

On a visit to the hat museum in Stockport The Flat Cap met a man called Harry who was able to supply the following hat related facts:

  • Clement is the patron saint of felt hat makers

  • Jack “the hat” McVitie was a notorious English criminal who got his name from his fondness for eating copious amounts of McVities chocolate biscuits. He would have them delivered every Tuesday in a small van. He also wore a trilby hat a lot of the time

  • To brim or not to brim? That is the question hat makers face every working day. This is one of the reasons they reputedly go mad after many years in the industry

  • Another explanation for the phrase, “mad as a hatter” is because in the nineteenth century mercury was used in the making of hats. This was known to have affected the nervous systems of hatters, causing them to tremble and appear insane. Mercury poisoning is still known today as ‘Mad Hatter’s disease’

  • Lewis Carroll’s ‘Hatter’ character fromAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland is described as mad (but then so is the March Hare). In fact the whole book is a bit bonkers

  • In Fargo, North Dakota it is illegal to wear a hat whilst dancing. Offenders can be imprisoned if they flout this law

  • A milliner is the word used for a female who designs or sells hats. The word comes from Milaner – a person from Milan, where hat wearing was compulsory throughout the sixteenth century. People without some form of headwear could be fined or face up to seven days imprisonment

  • Liverpool and England footballer James Milner has a large collection of sombreros that he collected whilst on family holidays to Spain as a child. His interest in hats stems from when his primary school teacher pointed out that James’s surname shared almost the same spelling as “milliner”

  • London black taxi cabs are made tall so that a gentleman can ride in them without taking off his top hat

  • A Panama hat has never been made in Panama. It is made in Ecuador

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