Old Hat! Why the heady days are over

As the retirement this week of iconic hat-makers John and Harry Greenhough so poignantly demonstrates, the era of hat-wearing has peaked. Terry Kirby explores a world of felt, formality and fedoras
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The Independent Online

It was once unthinkable to be seen outside without one. "If you want to get ahead, get a hat,'' said the slogan. And so, regardless of class or sex, wearing a hat was simply what one did, ever since ... well, ever since the first caveman kept his head dry with a bit of spare animal skin.

It was once unthinkable to be seen outside without one. "If you want to get ahead, get a hat,'' said the slogan. And so, regardless of class or sex, wearing a hat was simply what one did, ever since ... well, ever since the first caveman kept his head dry with a bit of spare animal skin.

When hat-wearing was at its peak - from the late 19th century until the end of the 1930s - headgear could be seen on everyone, from caps for schoolboys or sailor hats on small girls, to politicians in bowlers or toppers. The humble flat cap, meanwhile, became a symbol for a whole strata of society.

It was an age in which a gentleman would tip his hat to a passing lady, headgear would be removed during the playing of the National Anthem and a judge caused outrage when he ordered the suffragettes in his courtroom to remove the hatpins from their fashionable Edwardian confections in case they were used as weapons against him.

But then along came the motor car, which sounded the deathknell for the widespread wearing of hats and the etiquette that accompanied them. Social changes and the rise of the haircut as fashion accessory did the rest. In America, the hatless young President John F Kennedy was credited with hastening the demise of hat-wearing among men. And so began the long-term decline of a once thriving industry.

Now one of the last links with that era has ended, with the retirement of two men: John and Harry Greenhough, twin brothers whose careers of almost 60 years in the business of hat-making parallels the rise and fall of the industry in Britain, once the largest in the world.

Ironically, their retirement comes at a time when hat wearing - at least among young and fashionable men - has rarely been more popular, with figures such as Chris (Mr Gwyneth Paltrow) Martin and David Beckham both sporting the beanie. Meanwhile, the baseball cap has become as ubiquitous as the flat cap.

Last Friday, the Greenhoughs, both 75, finally parted company with the last remnants of the Denton Hat Company, in south Manchester. The area had been the centre of the hat manufacturing trade, a spin-off from the wool and cotton-based industries of the north of England. At one time, there were more than 90 factories, employing around 24,000 people. Stockport made felt hats, Denton used rabbit fur.

First established by the family in the 1920s, the company employed 300 people and at its peak in the 1930s, it was responsible for a quarter of all men's hats sold in the United Kingdom.

Its production line churned out more than 100,000 felt hats a week, sold under the trade name of "Attaboy". They were worn by popular entertainers such as Wilfred Pickles and film stars like Alec Guinness and sold by Marks and Spencer under their own brand name.

"Everyone in Stockport and Denton was in the hat trade in those days," recalled John Greenhough yesterday. "My father was an apprentice hat maker and was taught by his uncle. Our older brother, Wilfred, was already in the firm and I started when I was 16 and my brother a year later, just at the end of the Second World War. We started on the ground floor, working the machines. You had to learn about all parts of the business in those days."

But the writing was already on the wall for the hat trade. According to Hannah Spooner, curator of the Museum of Hatting, in Stockport, those who had served in the forces during the war - and been forced to wear hats of all kinds - decided that going hatless would represent a break with the past. For others, it was said, the inferior quality of the "demob" hats put them off the item.

"The trade struggled on for some time and there was lots of talk about how hat sales were staying healthy, but really it was all about decline,'' she said, "Once cars began to be covered, people didn't need to keep their heads warm as much as when they had to wait for a tram or walk somewhere. And then fashion began to focus more on hairstyles, like the beehive or the quiff, which had been far less important.'' Hairstyles and hats do not make good company.

The Denton Hat Company was luckier than many, having cornered the mass market in felt hats. Its man's hat was produced entirely in Denton, while the basic felt shapes for women's hats were sent south for finishing to Luton, where the millinery trade was based. The company, now run by the three Greenhough brothers, even expanded into another factory and made machinery for the rest of the trade.

Then, as the 1950s went on, the decline hit. "We kept going longer than most, while around us somebody was closing every few months. But then suddenly it hit. We diversified into knitwear for C&A - but even that was undercut by cheap imports.'' The firm began to cut back and rented out space in their mill to other companies.

As their competitors fell by the wayside, the brothers remained resourceful and determined to adapt to changing times. At the end of the 1980s they moved their by now much diminished business to share the premises of another long established company in the area, T W Brasher, and developed a one-piece style of boater and Panama hat for the catering and supermarket trade, made from acrylic. This has been worn by everyone from butchers in the food hall of Harrods to counter assistants in Kwik Save.

During the past five years, the brothers have reduced their commitment to a few days a week and the business has been gradually absorbed by Brasher's or sub-contracted. "We've kept our hands in on the machines, but it's all virtually automatic now," said Mr Greenhough. And there was a note of sadness in his voice as he said: "We didn't want to see the business fade away, after we had built it up over the years, but at least it has become part of the tradition of Brashers, which has been going for 120 years."

The decline has been mirrored in the United States, where hat wearing had become as much a part of life as in Britain - and possibly lingered longer.

In a book to be published later this year, Hatless Jack, the President, the Fedora and the Death of the Hat (Granta), writer Neil Steinberg describes how John F Kennedy, despite having a top hat to hand during his inauguration, preferred not to wear it and was never seen in a hat thereafter.

This seemingly trivial decision sealed the fate of hat wearing and a whole American tradition of hat-check girls, hat-waving and hit-tipping was swept away by a new generation.

"With the election of Kennedy as president, the public began to perceive what those in the hat business had known for years - the younger a man was, the less he cared for hats. Somehow, what was once a symbol of adulthood had become a sign of age.''

Now, the wheel has come full circle. But while a certain type of hat is "in" for a certain type of young man, there are a few other occasions when men wear hats: Panamas on holiday or at a cricket match perhaps; a farmer's tweed trilby; a jazz musician's stylish Borsalino; a fedora like that sometimes sported by the writer Terry Pratchett. But it has got to be a very strict dress code indeed before you see men wearing hats at more formal occasions.

The reverse seems generally true of women - hats are mostly for big social occasions, the office trip to Royal Ascot or what remains of the Season. And almost no one wears a hat to work, unless, like police officers or food workers, their job calls for it.

Of course, paradoxically, rock stars have always worn hats to work, whether it is an American stetson, (everyone from ZZ Top to Bob Dylan), the beanie (Martin and The Edge from U2) or the pork-pie hat, favoured by Frank Sinatra at his most cool, and early reggae stars of the "Rude Boy" era and their fans, as mimicked by Alexei Sayle in his stand-up days.

One such pork-pie hat wearer is Peanut, the keyboard player with the band the Kaiser Chiefs. He said yesterday: "I like it best because I can wear it at a jaunty angle ... while I'm bouncing away behind the keyboards. And it's a bit of a nod to the two-tone look.

"It's a shame, isn't it? Gentlemen in suits and a good hat, they look dapper. Maybe I should champion the cause of hat wearing. It might be time for a revival.''

Dylan Jones, editor of GQ magzine, is not a hat wearer himself but believes there is money to be made in hats again. He said: "In simpler times, hats helped to give men a civilian uniform, along with a suit and a furled brolly. Men haven't really felt the need to wear hats since the Sixties, when it suddenly became unbelievably uncool to wear a bowler.

"But these days you only wear a hat if you want to draw attention to yourself. Thankfully, the fad for baseball hats seems to be over as more men wear hooded tops. The person who could get British men to wear hats again would make an extraordinary amount of money.''

For Ms Spooner, at the Museum of Hatting, proper hats will always represent a certain style: "I like a good hat and I always wear one myself. It's a nice thing to wear a proper hat, a smart coat and gloves - it's a kind of retro feel. It is good for formal occasions and, I think, gives a real ladylike air.''

So far as men are concerned, she believes baseball cap wearers such as Justin Timberlake "have a lot to answer for". "I do not like baseball bats and I do like to see a man wear a formal hat, like a trilby. But I'm not sure we are quite ready for the return of the bowler.''

But perhaps the last word should be given to John Greenhough, a hat wearer throughout his life. "I have to wear a hat, don't I?'' he says.

Naturally, he is unhappy at the decline in hat wearing: "There is always bit of a fillip for hats when there is an outbreak of cold weather but the days are gone when going out without a proper suit and hat was a social stigma. The only people who wear hats properly these days are country people.''

But his real anger is reserved for the baseball cap: "They come in from China and are so cheap now that, in the old days, if we had not paid our girls any money and stolen all the materials, we would still have been unable to compete. They're just an advertising gimmick, aren't they? They aren't hats.'' And he should know.

Simon Carr: I've worn hats for years (and I've got the bruises to prove it ...)

One of the rare consolations of age is the hat. At my age, a man can suddenly start to wear a hat in the street without attracting violence. It's possible to pretend it's keeping the increasingly exposed dome warm. You're old in the eyes of the young, in that generic way that people over 50 are, so you can do the things old people do without seeming to be affected about it.

There's something about a young man in a hat which brings out the worst in those physical critics out there. I've worn hats for years and have the bruises to prove it.

I always assumed it was the hat, at college, that had attracted the lupine youths down the alleyways, but the suit didn't help and of course there was the eye make-up. But without the hat you could have got away with it. It was the hat that marked you out as asking for it. "If you want to get ahead, get a hat," the slogan said. But that had been years ago, in the age of deference.

This momentous social change must have happened just before the baby boom became of hat-wearing age. My father's generation wore hats of every sort - but by my time they were part of a costume, part of an act, part of a period drama in which you felt yourself to be starring (that's what people hated).

There was the fedora or the Borsalino (for hard-boiled detective readers), the panama (for punting), the trilby (for going racing, or for looking as though you were going racing), and the bowler (for Clockwork Orange parties).

My father retired after I left college and sent me his Whitehall bowler, with his card. He'd written on the back: "No more passing out on Horseguards Parade." I always regret lacking the suicidal courage to have worn that hat in 1976.

It might yet be possible to wear a bowler - they're no less absurd than bicycle helmets - and the pendulum must be swinging back in the direction of formality.

So we can pretend it's mere practicality - like a small, circumscribed, head-specific, hands-free umbrella for middle aged men. But we hat wearers know they mean rather more than that.

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