They have perched atop the heads of straight-faced soldiers for almost 200 years, been photographed by millions of tourists and generated countless protests, but now the controversial bearskin hats worn by the Buckingham Palace Guardsmen finally seem likely to be replaced with a more modern, humane alternative.
The imposing Guards Regiments may soon be topping off their red jackets with natty Stella McCartney or Vivienne Westwood creations, after a meeting next week in which senior MoD officials will consider a range of alternative hats created by leading designers.
Baroness Taylor, the minister for defence procurement, who is responsible for acquiring all of the Army's equipment, will meet with the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) to review the designs on Tuesday.
"This meeting is hugely significant for our campaign to save North American bears," said Robbie LeBlanc, director of Peta. "If she has a heart and can see the PR nightmare of the MoD continuing to support the Canadian bear slaughter, she can wield her influence and push the MoD to scrap the bearskin caps sooner rather than later."
An MoD spokesperson confirmed that a private meeting would be taking place next week, and insisted that the MoD is open to alternatives to the traditional bearskin hats.
"The MoD is not opposed to the use of synthetic materials as an alternative to bearskins, provided such materials meet the requirement for a high-quality product that performs adequately in all weather conditions. Regrettably, a suitable alternative continues to prove elusive."
The British designer Vivienne Westwood has been asked by Peta to produce an "innovative" new design, while Stella McCartney and the US designer Marc Bouwer have both agreed to produce caps if commissioned by the MoD.
"I can't imagine a more distinct honour than to be asked to redesign the Royal Guard's bearskin hats with the luxurious faux fur I have used in my collections," said Mr Bouwer, whose fur and leather-free designs have been worn by celebrities including Angelina Jolie and Sarah Jessica Parker.
"I would be delighted to take on this challenge and am confident the outcome would be a wonderful hat that carried on the Guards' tradition, but in a modern way that doesn't involve the taking of bears' lives," he added.
The Queen's five regiments of foot guards need between 50 and 100 new caps every year – each of which is 18ins tall and takes the entire skin of a black bear to make. In March, it was revealed that the MoD has spent more than £321,000 on bearskins in the past five years.
During the meeting, Lady Taylor and her colleagues will be shown undercover video footage of bears being baited, shot and skinned by Canadian hunters, a recording that will be available on Peta's website.
"We are hoping that we can finally agree on a way forward which displays the will and compassion of the British people and display to the world that we are a caring nation," Mr LeBlanc said.
The hats were first worn by British soldiers in 1815, following the defeat of Napoleon's French Imperial Guards at the battle of Waterloo. The French grenadiers wore bearskins to appear taller and more intimidating, and Britain adopted the towering hats for soldiers in ceremonial duties and guarding royal residencies as a symbol of their victory.
Previous attempts to replace the ceremonial hats with a synthetic fabric have failed. Officers claimed that they were not as durable as the traditional bearskin and that they do not look the same as the originals, which are famous around the world.
"The armed services are probably going through a pretty challenging time – it is the beginning of the 21st century, and the way the Army works is changing. In these circumstances, there is a lot to be said for the importance of tradition, of ceremony, of wearing the same hat that your grandfather wore," said Professor Paul Kennedy, historian at the London School of Economics.
Peta staged a naked demonstration outside Buckingham Palace in 2006 to protest against the bearskin hats, and next month members launch a new campaign, which is being backed by a host of celebrities including the singers Morrissey and Pink, the designer Sadie Frost and the actor Sir Roger Moore.
The comedian Ricky Gervais last week wrote to Gordon Brown, to ask him to replace the bearskin hats with synthetic alternatives. "I understand and appreciate the importance of uniforms, but continuing to use real fur in the 21st century is inexcusable, regardless of tradition," he wrote.
w ww.Peta.org.uk You can join the debate at ios.typepad.com
The bear truth: What they say about the hats
50-100 - new bearskin caps are needed every year
£321,000 - is the minimum amount that the Ministry of Defence has spent on bearskins in the past five years
1 - black bear is needed to make one hat for a guardsman
1815 - was the year that bearskin hats were first worn by the Grenadier Guards following the Duke of Wellington's victory at the battle of Waterloo
600,000 - Black bears currently live in North America – a number thought to have fallen from two million
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