This blog post is by way of praise for Stéphane May’s hat shop – Chapellerie Maroquinerie May – in Loches, Southern Touraine. The store has been going for a period of time that can only be measured in donkeys and always has an excellent selection of men’s and women’s hats at affordable prices.
I bought my first hat when I was about 11 and I still have it. It’s a gentleman’s top hat, silky black, inscribed « West & Company Hatters 29 Cheapside London E.C. Also Foreign Agencies Extra Quality”. I purchased it to do magic tricks, and it still serves this purpose. It is sitting beside me now, on a bookshelf in my office, with my magic wand in it and my Sooty glove puppet – Sooty is my occasional assistant.
In 1976, I worked as a sub-editor on Radio Times magazine in Marylebone High Street, and just downstairs, David Shilling – following in his mother Gertrude’s footsteps – had opened his first milliner’s boutique, providing hats for stars, the aristocracy and Royal Ascot. Likewise, in Loches, Stéphane May has followed in the footsteps of his mother.
It is perhaps no coincidence that in my first novel, The Hat of Victor Noir, a top hat should feature prominently as the mainspring of the plot. My grandfather, like most men of his generation, wore a Homburg – popularised by Anthony Eden – and in his last years, my father did too, partly as a homage to his own father.
As we know from old photographs of street scenes, 100 years ago men would not leave home without a hat. When and why did this change? The consensus is that there were two decisive factors: the proliferation of the private motor car, in which it is unnecessary and indeed cumbersome to wear a hat; and the Second World War, after which men often decided not to wear a hat “because I had to in the war”. Thus a once indispensable fashion accessory was consigned to history. Curiously, the far less useful and purely decorative neck tie is still de rigueur in certain circles and professions.
The plethora of hat styles is astonishing, as is the cultural semiology. From Gene Hackman’s porkpie hat in French Connection to Chaplin’s bowler, Holmes’s deerstalker or Indiana Jones’ fedora, no hat is free of associations.
My own taste in hats is rather limited. I have a Stetson silk newsboy cap for autumn and winter (6842501 Col 317) and a Stetson cotton newsboy cap for spring and summer (6841106 Col 71). Stetson, based in Philadelphia, is the world’s largest hat maker and their newsboy caps are beyond compare. Add to this five cycling caps (four of which are Rapha), and that’s it.
The newsboy cap, as the name suggests, is associated with street urchins – as is the French name “gavroche” – or gangsters. It is also called a Baker Boy, Bandit Cap, Apple Cap, Eight Piece Cap, Eight Panel, Cabbie, Jay Gatsby, Fisherman’s Cap, Pageboy, Applejack Hat, Lundberg Stetson, Chiz Hat and Poor Boy Cap.
As for cycling caps, they evolved from jockeys’ caps, are easy to carry and, in the Tour de France, provided a convenient billboard for sponsor publicity. It is a tragedy that they no longer form part of the kit, since the obligation to wear a helmet, and even though they shou
ld be worn on the podium, cyclists often choose the less refined baseball cap. A cycling cap provides good protection from wind and sun, and can be worn frontally, with visor up or down, or backwards to protect the neck, but never sideways (click here
for an article on cycling cap etiquette). Furthermore, it should never be worn when not cycling.
Nowadays, there are no rules and hat wearing is pretty much a free-for-all. I photographed a few items of headwear, and the related heads, at the Saturday morning market in Loches (see below). Straw hats, Panamas, baseball caps, flat caps all seem to be standard for men, while women’s hats come in all shapes and sizes.