Get Ahead. Get a Hat
Updated: Jan 19
Mr Londoner lifts the lid on headwear in this history podcast
Look at images of early 20th century London and almost everybody’s wearing a hat. People look elegant and purposeful in toppers (top hats for the posh), Bowlers or Cokes (for clerks and middle managers) - and the simple but functional cloth cap, worn by men across the class spectrum.
Men in hats
Famous hat wearers included Winston Churchill. Also on the list is Sean Connery’s James Bond, who artfully landed his trilby on Miss Moneypenny’s hat stand. And Bond villain Oddjob used his bowler to devastating effect in 1964’s Goldfinger.
Today, fedoras and homburgs are nowhere to be seen, replaced by the ubiquitous baseball cap - beloved of teenagers and tourists alike. Modern men are seemingly less confident in their sartorial choices than their more rakish dads and grandads. Sporting a baseball cap is a way to fit in rather than stand out.
London still has a handful of makers however. Christys, with its distinctive red and gold logo, was founded in 1773. Lock and Co. St James’s Street, is London’s most famous hat-maker. Opened in 1676, it’s the world’s oldest hat shop. Beau Brummell, Horatio Nelson and David Beckham have all shopped here.
With industrialisation, London’s 19th century hat industry grew and grew. The lives of hat-makers themselves were however nasty, brutish and short. Mercury, used in felt production, induced dementia-like symptoms. Hence Lewis Carroll’s ‘Mad Hatter’ in Alice in Wonderland.
The capital’s smelly and toxic industries like tanneries and vinegar distilling were crammed into its southeastern corner, around Southwark. Hatfields was a centre for hat-making. Hatfield Green, now a pleasant public park, was once full of hat factories and warehouses. The nearby Mad Hatter pub - where we begin our podcast - recalls the area’s industrial past.
When you think of London’s hats, you might think of the guardsmen at Buckingham Palace in their bearskins. Guardsmen have worn this striking headwear since the 1815 Battle of Waterloo. But final mention goes to the hats worn by the Tower of London’s Beefeaters (or Yeoman Warders to give them their proper name). Their black hats have 16th century origins.
Take my advice when discussing this particular item with the Beefeaters in person however: never describe their headwear as … a bonnet.
Mr Londoner is writer, broadcaster and former Museum of London director Antony Robbins
Listen to Mr Londoner talking about hats in our History of Men's Fashion Podcast