There’s a hatful of history in these head accessories: the chef’s hat, the dunce’s cap, and New Zealand’s unique hat that drove a native bird to extinction.
The huia bird, native to New Zealand, became extinct in the early 20th century due in part to hats. When the Duke of York visited Rotorua in 1902 he was given a huia tail feather, which he put on his hat. After this, rich and famous people the world over were willing to pay lots of money to have their own huia hat feather – sounding the death-knell for the bird. Birds and hats have an unhappy association: the Audubon Society was founded in order to protect the bird population from Edwardian millinery trends that saw whole birds put on hats.
The beret started out as a French shepherd’s hat. In 1918, the British Tank Corps trained with a French mountain regiment that had adopted blue berets because they were warm and weatherproof. Close fitting, and with no peaks to snag on things, berets were perfect for tank crews. They were also cheap to make, didn’t show sweat stains and fitted nicely under an epaulette. This has made them the universal hat for the modern soldier.
The tall chef’s hat, or toque blanche, traditionally had 100 pleats to represent the number of ways an egg could be cooked. Toques were originally worn by French magistrates. They were adopted by haute cuisine types like Escoffier to make it clear who was chef (boss) in the kitchen. The Muppets’ Swedish chef wears one.
Felt-hat manufacturing is a very old industry. The ancient Romans wore a type of felt hat, called a “petasus”, on journeys. Until the early 1920s manufacturing was performed by hand. Hat felt was made from beaver or rabbit fur that had been ground, squeezed and heated.
The inventor of the top hat, John Hethrington, was fined £50 in 1797 for “appearing on the public highway wearing upon his head a tall structure having a shining lustre and calculated to frighten timid people”.
Hat wearing goes way back. A cave drawing in France is the earliest known record of the practice, and it’s 15,000 years old. Hatters really began to flourish in Germany in the 14th century.
Students of theology in the Middle Ages were the first to wear dunce’s caps. The cap was supposed to funnel God’s wisdom into the head. The failure of this system, demonstrated by followers of theologian Duns Scotus talking twaddle, lead to the dunce’s cap being associated with foolishness instead.
The bowler hat, the symbol of the London commuter, began life as a riding helmet. It was designed in 1849 by London hatmakers Thomas and William Bowler to protect mounted gamekeepers from low-hanging branches. Its practicality and strength made it the hat of choice for American cowboys, who called it the derby. Peruvians and Bolivians adopted the bowler as part of their national dress when British railway workers wore it there in the 1920s.
People stopped wearing hats after the Second World War, possibly due to new hairstyles and the rise of the motorcar. At first the hat industry thought hatlessness was a passing fad. People who walked bareheaded through the British hat-making towns of Denton and Stockport risked abuse from local factory workers who saw their livelihoods disappearing.
Story reproduced with the permission of NZME. Educational Media