September 25 2011
Of all the things the nation is likely to run out of in the months ahead, I doubt many of us would have put men’s flat caps at the top of the list. Yet, were it not for the foresight of sporting milliners, reeling from their overnight success, hatless heads could have been a reality.
“Last year we literally ran out of stock,” says Noll Uloth of London’s JC Cordings. “Flat cap sales went through the roof, and it took us a full three days to work out what was going on,” says the managing director of the store where tradition is a religion sewn in tweed.
It was the same story for all the nation’s leading cap suppliers. Caps were, by a large margin, the number-one sellers across the road at Bates of Jermyn Street; and at the other end of the spectrum, flat cap sales at dear old M&S surged by an unimaginable 989 per cent.
After a good deal of soul-searching, the bemused Uloth and his staff came to the conclusion that flat caps are now very much in vogue. “Our company started in 1839. We don’t change styles or colours the ways others stores do, so it was quite difficult to get our heads around the fact that our caps are… [his voice wavers] fashionable.”
The humble cap’s success is all the more remarkable when one considers that the basic design has barely changed for hundreds of years. Men’s caps, the default garment for the racetrack and the grouse moor, simply don’t do trendy. With the exception of a few minor variations here and there, including experiments away from Harris or Donegal tweeds into leather and corduroy, the classic cap remains a no-nonsense check woollen hat, with just a small peak so you can see what you’re doing with a gun when you look up. It’s ideal for a spin in the open-top motor, too.
Bates’s manager, Jean-Luc Guitard, awaits the autumn rush with a stock of more than 3,000 caps in dozens of patterns. His shelves have nine variations on the basic theme (£69-£75); four slim-fitting, rounded caps with subtle differences in the length of peak and width (£69); and five “baker’s boy” caps, plumper and with a distinctly Edwardian feel.
“The cap is the first step into hat-wearing,” says Guitard, anticipating that the big seller this year will be the leather Baker’s Boy with a crooked peak (£89) made by the American firm Stetson. He favours the grey herringbone version.
“When people decide they need to wear something on their head they tend to say, ‘A hat? No, I always look ridiculous.’ So they opt for the safe option – a cap. Then, when they are comfortable, they’ll come back and try something that is more of a statement.”
What began life in the 14th century with the less-than-masculine moniker of “bonnet” received the sartorial boost modern milliners dream of when in 1571, in a move designed to stimulate domestic wool consumption, an Act of Parliament decreed that every working man over the age of six years had, by law, to wear a wool cap every Sunday and public holiday. Failure to do so would result in a fine. By the time the Act was repealed, 26 years later, the flat cap – having evolved from medieval headgear into something we’d recognise today, with a soft round crown and a stiff flat brim, drawn down snugly over the back of the head – was established as the titfer of the working man. It remained part of the fabric of proletariat life throughout the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, as celebrated in the Daily Mirror’s much-loved Andy Capp cartoon.
But the working man wasn’t to have it all his own way. A trim woollen hat that wouldn’t get snagged by thorn bushes and thickets lent itself to bucolic sports, and by the Edwardian era the flat cap – albeit made of finer materials – was as ubiquitous on shoots as in steel towns. Nowadays, to the seasoned wearer, especially rewarding is the manner in which a cap “shrinks” down and tightens over time, almost maturing into the shape of the wearer’s head – the result of years of rain, hail and perspiration. It’s the millinery equivalent of a pair of Levi’s.
For years, Barbour has successfully mined the faultline between town and country, and its red or orange overcheck herringbone Eilden Cap (£39.95) is a cornerstone of its Sporting Collection. This year, the company has 13 styles, among them the bestselling waxed-cotton Wax Cap (£22.95) and the unsurpassed wool-lined Crieff (£32.95), available in a raft of checks. New, and ideal for those chaps who wouldn’t be seen dead in either a beanie or ear mufflers, is the Bedale (£37.95), a wax-coated, weatherproof cap with fold-away earflaps.
Down in Salisbury, Regent Tailoring is one of a new breed of “edgy” out-of-town country tailors. The staff there can match your tweed cap to your sporting suit and hip flask, if required, in a number of sizes (from £65). Run by Jason Regent, whose grandfather was author Ian Fleming’s family butler, Regent makes five styles of Classic and Flat cap in sombre green and blue checks, each with its trademark deep back and hand-sewn peak. Caps start at £39.
It would be churlish not to recognise that a good deal of the flat cap’s current popularity is down to off-duty actors such as Sean Connery, Daniel Craig and Brad Pitt being spotted in them. And, as Uloth notes, the cap is perfect for festival-goers who want something they can scrunch up in their pocket and pull out when the weather inevitably turns sour. Acknowledging this younger market, Paul Smith has three caps at £119. The knitted ones look terrific, although how they’d cope with a raging southwesterly on Bodmin Moor is anyone’s guess. Equally fashion-led are Ralph Lauren’s back-buckle-adjustable caps with raised duckbill peaks in corduroy, alpaca and cashmere (£45-£60).
For me, the most successful attempt to tap into urban heads is at Lock & Co of St James’s in London. The landmark shop has been supplying handmade tweed and cashmere caps to sporting folk since the dawn of time. There is a painting of the Prince of Wales in 1922 looking every inch the outdoors man in Lock’s definitive hunting cap, the medium-full “eight-piece” Turnberry (£125). Personally, I favour the narrow Gill (£109), which really is quite dashing in a single plain colour.
Against this background, Lock introduced a line of city-chic caps last autumn. Lock & Roll is a range of narrower caps, with longer peaks, in grey, black and burgundy corduroy fabrics (all £75). They look stunning with dark city coats and jackets. And while Cording’s signature Kinloch cap (£55) may be aimed at what Uloth describes as “the terrier man as he scrabbles around the brambles”, chances are that, once again, they’ll be snapped up by suburban style squires. “We’re ready for them,” says Uloth confidently. “We’ve more than doubled our order.”