America celebrates 50 years of a fashion icon

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The Independent US

It was invented to keep the sun out of the eyes of America's baseball heroes and has evolved into the most popular quick fix for a bad hair day.

It was invented to keep the sun out of the eyes of America's baseball heroes and has evolved into the most popular quick fix for a bad hair day.

The ubiquitous baseball cap has long outgrown the confines of the playing field to become an essential accessory for millions.

From balding politicians and rude-boy skateboarders to school-run mums and pop princesses, its universal appeal has effortlessly transcended social boundaries.

And, this year, the humble baseball cap celebrates its 50th birthday, having spent the past five decades undergoing a radical transformation from sporting accessory to American icon.

It was in 1954 that the New Era Company first unveiled its unique beak-shaped 59Fifty cap which unified the style of headgear for American baseball players for the first time.

For decades, it remained strictly part of their on-pitch uniform with little indication of its future potential as an iconic fashion accessory.

Embraced by fashion, television and popular culture in the 1980s, its popularity off the pitch steadily grew until it spread across the globe.

Today, its flattering ability to mask bad hair days or baldness has ensured it is the headgear of choice for golfers, ageing businessmen and middle-aged mothers alike. As modelled by Madonna, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, it also forms an essential part of the unofficial uniform of celebrities during daylight hours, complete with Juicy Couture tracksuit and sunglasses.

The 50th birthday of the cap confirmed it had become an integral part of British society, according to Ian Spencer, the managing director of capitate.co.uk, a website which specialises in selling baseball caps.

Sporting a John Deere cap with a 1950s logo, Mr Spencer said: "The baseball cap is popular because it is so versatile, convenient and comfortable.

"There is a massive influence in terms of urban fashion, music and television as well as the impact of America in terms of rap artists and MTV.

"On a more practical level, they're also perfect for bad hair days and rainy British weather."

But with the popularity inevitably comes the backlash.

Cringe-inducing images of middle-age aficionados of the baseball cap abound. Among the most memorable is William Hague, the former Tory leader, whose painful attempts to appear in touch with the people backfired when he wore a baseball cap to the Notting Hill Carnival.

Another source of irritation is the habit of wearing baseball caps backwards, which grew in popularity at an alarming rate during the 1990s.

"The trend of wearing them back-to-front can be traced back to the American baseball player Ken Griffey Jr of the Seattle Mariners," said Mr Spencer "A lot of designers today accommodate the trend by ensuring there's a logo at the back."

But the crux of the appeal of the baseball cap lay in its ability to transcend the fickle vagaries of fashion, according to Chris Sanderson, creative director of the Future Laboratory, the trends forecaster, and contributing style editor at Esquire.

He said: "Everyone seems to go through a baseball cap at some point in their lives and then they stop, generally because they tend to look very, very stupid in them," he said.

"Men do tend to cling on to them and can become very dependent on them because they can solve all hair problems."

CAP FACTS

  • Until the baseball cap was introduced in 1954, players wore an eclectic selection of headgear, ranging from straw caps to jockey caps.
  • Britney Spears opted for a pair of jeans and a baseball cap during her wedding in Las Vegas.
  • The film maker Spike Lee broke with baseball cap convention in 1994 by asking manufacturers to make him a custom-sized Yankees cap in "unofficial" colours.
  • Michael Moore, producer of Fahrenheit 9/11, is the latest high-profile aficionado.
  • The most expensive baseball cap in the world used to adorn the head of Lou Gehrig, the Yankees legend, and sold for £100,000 five years ago.
  • Three years ago, the baseball cap became one of 650 items used to estimate inflation.

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