Is there anything more quintessentially British than a good old-fashioned flat cap?
A case could perhaps be made for the coke or 'bowler' hat (Charlie Chaplin & Winston Churchill being some of its most famous wearers), and yet no hat has managed to withstand the test of time quite like the flat cap.
While most traditional hats (the Homburg and Fedora to name just two) were wrenched from the heads of men in the latter half of the 20th century in favour of the baseball cap, the “Newsboy”, “Higdon”, “Golf cap” or “Gatsby”, as it has become variously known around the globe has clung on despite the odds. But why is that? And where do these hats come from?
Where Did Flat Caps Come From?
The flat cap found its first form in England in the late 16th century, when a bit of protectionist legislation was passed by Parliament stating that males over the age of six, "had on Sabbath and Holydays to wear caps of wool manufactured in England." The law, known as the Statute of Apparel, excluded the nobility, and was oddly only in effect for two decades before being repealed.
This of course leads to an historical puzzle much like that of the chicken and the egg: was the woolen cap already so well entrenched that the Statue of Apparel was superfluous to its adoption and continual use? Or did a law only in existence for twenty years have such an effect on the general population so as to perpetuate centuries of hat-wearing tradition? We will likely never know.
Flat Caps in More Recent Memory
By the early 20th century, flat caps began to lose their association with the working class and were adopted with great enthusiasm by people of all classes. The flat cap became a particular favourite for aristocratic pursuits, such as shooting and fishing, and by the 1920s was adopted by many schools as part of their uniforms.
How Are Flat Caps Made?
According to the Statute of Apparel, flat caps had to be made of wool. This was because of how important the wool industry had become to the Crown, and yet, this tradition hung on even as the English wool trade declined. Though it is not uncommon to find flat caps made of other materials, like linen, wool remains the trademark ingredient of a quality flat cap.
These typically woolen hats vary slightly in how they are crafted depending on the specific type of hat being made.
There are 8 panel hats, and 6 panel hats, for example which offer the classic “Newsboy” or “Baker boy” look. These hats are marked by characteristic seams on the crown which are complemented at the centre by a button. Each panel is sewn to the other before being fastened to the brim and finished with a headband.
“Driver caps” on the other hand, are topped by a single piece of fabric which is sewn to the brim of the hat, offering a slightly more formal look.
Are Flat Caps Only Found in England?
Although they originated in the UK and Ireland, flat caps have historically been worn the world over and continue to be found in many places outside the British Isles today. An “export of Empire”, much like tea and other particularly British traditions, the flat cap is purported to have been adopted by Italian men in the late 1800s, and in Turkey, the flat cap became the go-to replacement for the fez (a hat traditionally worn by members of the governing class in the Ottoman Empire) after the cylindrical headdress was outlawed as part of Mustafa Kemal’s reforms.
While today New York and London may compete for a crown when it comes to being the English-speaking fashion capital, not so long ago, the United States also took much of its fashion inspiration from across the pond, meaning the styles for both men and women in North America were almost identical to those seen in Britain. The flat cap was worn far and wide in America as a result, becoming popular over time in the same way it had in Britain: first among the working class, then among schoolboys and eventually the wealthy for whom it became a choice option for outdoor pursuits.
The flat cap is still particularly popular on America’s Northeast coast, which was the traditional landing ground for many Irish, English, and Italian immigrants. These newcomers all tended to wear flat caps at home and continued to do so when they moved to the USA.
Famous Flat Cap Wearers
More than a few celebrities (and fictional characters) have been spotted sporting a flat cap over the years. Here are some of the most iconic names in popular culture that love their flat caps.
HRH The Prince of Wales
Prince Charles is truly an ambassador for elegant menswear, so it’s no surprise that His Royal Highness made our list of celebrities who are famous for sporting a flat cap. Photos stretching back to the Prince’s youth show him often enjoying the British countryside in a cap, complemented usually by a tweed jacket or knit jumper.
The former England midfielder has been known to wear a flat cap in almost any setting; in fact, Becks and his son Brooklyn got a nod from GQ Magazine a few years back for “keeping the flat cap relevant”. Fancy that!
The leader of this fictional gang made the flat cap a major topic of conversation when the first season of Peaky Blinders hit TV screens in 2013. The Peaky Blinders were a gang believed to have been active in early 20th century Birmingham. Tommy Shelby and his brothers are famously known to sew razor blades into the peaks of their caps which they use to cut their enemies.
The thing to take away when it comes to all of these famous flat cap wearers is that each man has truly made the hat their own. You don’t need to be a Birmingham gangster, the heir to the English throne, or a football superstar to wear one. You can be anyone at all and simply adjust how you wear the hat to match your own personal fashion sense.
The Flat Cap Today
Wearing a flat cap is not about “trying to pull it off”. At its origin, the flat cap was a universal head piece, meaning the flat cap was for everyone, and it still is! You don’t need to be from a particular place or out at a particular event to enjoy wearing this wonderful historic hat. Because while it most definitely harkens back to a previous era, it is indisputably a fashionable headpiece and a mainstay of contemporary style for all.
Check out Stanley Biggs’ exclusive collection of flat caps.
With multiple styles all made from 100% British wool, Stanley Biggs is where you’re sure to find a timeless topper to suit your style.