Swellboy on... the Peaky Blinders cap

Nick Foulkes surrenders to the hoodlum glamour of the eight‑piece tweed cap. Illustration by Chris Burke

Image: Chris Burke

In my youth, when the family gathered round the cathode ray tube to enjoy a few flickering images in between the power cuts of early-1970s Britain, the eight-piece cap was a focus of benign nostalgia worn by the baker’s lad in the Hovis advertisement – to my mind the defining work in the Ridley Scott oeuvre. Today, however, the brass bands, cobblestones and comforting regional burr of the voiceover have been replaced by the Nick Cave soundtrack, firearms and slo-mo violence of Peaky Blinders – a TV franchise glorifying provincial British hoodlums in the years between the wars.

My younger son was the first I know to get an eight-piece cap – at the time he was 16 and watching Peaky Blinders for its historical interest – he wore it with a 19th-century frock coat and it rather suited him.

I was rather more resistant. Of course, I had a half-dozen or so caps from William & Son or Lock & Co, and, for particularly foul weather, a cap from Beretta with a Gore-Tex lining. But these were flat caps maintained largely for ceremonial use on my occasional visits to the country.

They divide into two types. The William & Son ones (from £150) are small in the crown, close fitting and are at their best worn with a hacking jacket when trying to capture that Captain Mark Phillips c1978 look. These headhuggers come with the suggestion that some sort of horse trials are taking place around the corner.

I purchased the Lock examples (from £109) with entirely another member of the royal family in mind. My model here is the Duke of Windsor as Prince of Wales in John St Helier Lander’s portrait with a dog, a Fair Isle sweater and a splendid cap that domes over the royal bonce and then cantilevers out over the regal ears to such an extent that its circumference must be twice that of His Royal Highness’s skull. I have seen smaller satellite dishes and I can only describe the overall cranial profile as resembling the side view of an extremely large toadstool. It was this generosity of dimensions that has me giving the thumbs up to Stella Tennant and Isabella Cawdor’s cap collection (from £230) for Holland & Holland.

Of course, the benefit of this style of flat (in a curvilinear toadstool kind of way) cap is that it occasions the wearing of much Fair Isle knitwear, which I get from either Drake’s or the Anderson & Sheppard haberdashery shop. And there my interaction with caps ended.

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The shaming truth is that I did not have a single eight-piece tweed cap to my name. Atavistic fears of looking like Donny Osmond channelling Oliver Twist had provided a subliminal barrier between me and the eight-piece – and if I thought of it at all, it was as a silted-up sartorial tributary that barely warranted attention… until Peaky Blinders. Even with the example of Cillian Murphy to guide me, I somehow considered that being inspired by a television programme was somewhat infra dig. The Damascene moment came when I saw those twin paragons of male elegance, Davids Gandy and Beckham, “rocking” – as I believe people trying to sound young say – eight-piece caps as worn in Peaky Blinders.

I am not usually influenced by models or athletes but there are times when the combined power of one of the nation’s most notorious television programmes and two of the kingdom’s best-looking and most accomplished men has to be obeyed and I trotted obediently down to Lock to get myself a grey herringbone eight‑piece cap (£145).

It is somehow more urban than the flat cap and I have found that in town colours – such as grey, blue and black – I can get away with it while wearing a navy suit. As the old adage goes: it fits and I wear it.

Better still it has been the gateway drug to a world of thoroughly addictive clothing. The epiphanic moment of elucidation came when I tried the eight-piece caps (from £150) at Huntsman. They are made in the evermore vigorous house checks, which, when cut into the parts of a cap begin to assume the character of a cubist or constructivist painting – I was hooked and every time since then, whenever I have bespoken a tweed garment, I have added enough cloth to make a matching cap or two. 

I have since found myself gazing for hours into the window of Bates on Jermyn Street, admiring such variants of the cap as the Harlem (from £90), which has a large flap to cover the ears and the back of the neck, and the Rally (from £120), which has two flaps that fold down from the top of the hat and cover the ears, fastening under the chin. The Rally is not a look that suits me, with the flaps… well… flapping about my ears, I find that it gives the impression of a peasant from a Brueghel painting who is considering driving in the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run.

Now, with spring extending its promise of longer, warmer days, I will soon be able to wear the linen eight-piece cap (£109) I am having run up at Lock, to replace one that I rather foolishly gave to a good friend. In linen, the eight-piece definitely has the upper hand – anything else looks a bit bowling club. It is the perfect companion when sauntering along the Croisette or lolling about on the Lido in Venice. And it is just the thing for Cillian Murphy and his gang of Midland ruffians should they be planning a summer holiday biffing the Mafia in Sicily.

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