Stephen Doig on how the distinctive hat has gone from humble beginnings to a must-have accessory...
David Beckham has become a phenomenal bellwether in the world of men’s fashion. His then-sneered-at metrosexual attire in the late 90s is now a mainstay for the modern man, and his championing of the more outré realms of men’s style has helped British men embrace a wardrobe that bucks the path familiar. Which is why, when he and his brood of stylish offspring began to step out in tweed waistcoats and jackets topped off with jaunty baker boy caps, it signalled the return of an accessory that speaks to a certain vintage appeal.
Debate bubbles away on its origins, but it’s commonly thought that the baker boy’s current incarnation comes from informal, pliable wool cloth caps worn by Irish workers in the 15th century to protect them from the sun, evolving into a hat associated with a kind of blue collar attire and one that’s synonymous with a certain kind of 1930s pluck. It’s the uniform of the “read all about it” newsstand boy, as well as the shady underworld depicted in Peaky Blinders.
And like so many sartorial emblems that have humble beginnings (see Chanel’s love of the fisherman jersey), it’s an item that was then appropriated by the aristocracy for country pursuits, and worn by everyone from Prince Charles to Gatsby. Sartorial socio-political theories would point to the tumultuous times we find ourselves in, which tends to see people attracted to clothes that speak to a kind of nostalgia, but alongside this the baker boy cap’s also an easy-to-go-anywhere accessory that’s informal but considered.
And integral to its shape is the tweed with which it’s made; woven into triangles sealed together with a button, and then ridged with a flat cap. Britain’s tweed production is one of its finest exports, with the town of Berwick-Upon-Tweed so named because of the area’s history and importance in the craft of tweed. It evolved as a hub of tweed manufacturing in the 18th century, the name “tweed” originating from the Scottish “tweel” for the twisted fibres bound together diagonally for a denser kind of weave. A London fabric merchant misread a label on a package and the cult of “tweed” was born, going on to act as the heavy-duty woollen attire of the new landed gentry.
It’s also heartening that, in a climate where British manufacturing faces challenges, contemporary brands are committed to showcasing the might and muscle of British craft. Holland Cooper, founded ten years ago in Cheltenham, has long been a driving force in the support of British skill, with the company buying an astonishing 80,000 metres of tweed from seven British mills across the country, from Yorkshire to the Highlands, one of them being the oldest mill in the UK, founded in 1837. Proof that even the most modern and dynamic of brands can marry British history with slick, contemporary style.
Stephen Doig is the men’s style editor and assistant luxury editor at the Telegraph