The following is a rather pointless essay I wrote in 2004 for an exercise on cultural artefacts during my Masters in Creative Writing. It may prove diverting if the paint is drying too slowly.
Loved and Loathed
The Straw Boater Hat
The Boater hat is an item of clothing that has been both loved and hated. Throughout the hundred and fifty odd years that this style of hat has been in existence, it has been viewed at various times as a charming item of leisure wear for men and women, as an effete symbol of privilege as a compulsory article of school attire, and as jaunty accoutrement for barbershop quartets, vaudevillian performers and appreciators of haute couture. Now generally relegated to the status of a nostalgia item only sported on occasions such as the Henley Royal Regatta, the boater’s has been a curious journey which has seen the social significance of this artefact change dramatically.
In a recent work entitled The Man in the Bowler Hat, Fred Robinson noted that the Bowler hat is “rich with its various and (seemingly) contradictory meanings; its iconographic vocabulary is complex.” I would argue that this statement is equally true of the boater hat, although its dissemination and multivalency are not as great as that of the bowler. With that in mind, what I would like to establish in this essay is a brief and wholly inadequate ethnography of the boater hat and the various significations of this particular cultural artefact. My examination will focus on the history of the boater hat with particular reference to its role as a component of school uniform, followed by an examination of the boater as a part of the uniform of Cambridge punt chauffeurs, as an example of its survival as an item of contemporary attire.
The following is a recent internet advertisement for the Boater hat as a prestige item of stylish gents and men of status and influence.
Straw Boaters are back. This is the famous Straw Boater hat worn by politicians and stylish men alike after the beginning of the last century. Sometimes called Straw Sailor Hat, or Skimmer, this high quality hard Straw Boater hat is blocked into the classic boater shape in Italy. Watch for this hat on your favourite Barbershop Quartet. Don’t be fooled by our low price; this is the genuine article and the best available. This Italian Boater comes with a satin lining on the inside top and a leather sweatband.
The History of the Boater
The hat has long acted as a particularly potent symbol and signifier of social status. As is the case with any item of clothing, it is also subject to the dictates of fashion and as early as 1822 Lloyd in the Strand was offering forty-eight different styles of hat to their customers. Apparently originating in the Bedfordshire town of Luton, the boater was distinguished by its particular manufacture; namely, plaited straw coiled into a mass which was then moulded into the ‘boater’ form. The boater hat typically sports a not insubstantial flat brim topped with a flattened pill-box crown, surrounded by a ribbon band. Surprisingly tough for a light, cool hat, the boater is believed to derive from the flat-topped caps of French sailors and was first adopted as children’s wear in the middle of the nineteenth century. The boater gradually established itself during the second half of the nineteenth century as an item of leisure wear for both men and women and was mostly worn during informal occasions. Indeed the introduction of the boater, along with the homburg and fedora hats, marked a general adoption of informal hat styles. The manner in which the boater was worn was of particular importance for both men and women, with fashion generally dictating a rakish angle and debate being centred around exactly how far forward and how far to the side the hat should be worn.
The popularity of the boater reached its height during the period 1880-1930, though it was already in decline by the end of the First World War, after which it was eclipsed by the panama and the trilby. During this time the boater managed to find its way into the wardrobes of many different social classes both in Britain and abroad. When British schools began adopting it as part of their uniforms in the 1880s, the boater took on a new association which perhaps gave it its most distinct character and significance. Initially schools adopted the boater for wear during the summer term, decorating it with a ribbon in the school colours, yet for some it became a year-round feature of school attire and in many cases the boater was preferred to the much more formal top hat and was considered more than just a cut above the ubiquitous school cap.
The Boater as School Uniform
As was noted above, the boater was widely adopted as a compulsory part of school uniform as early as the late nineteenth century and was on the whole greeted positively as a consequence of its not being so formal. The popularity of this hat soon led to an inevitable reduction in its exclusivity and many schools dropped the boater from their uniforms when it was adopted for orphanages.” Many schools, nonetheless, retained the boater as a compulsory part of their uniform and with its diminished popularity as an adult style after the 1930s, the boater was most commonly to be found on the heads of English public school children, both male and female.
Curiously enough, it was not until after the Second World War that the boater established itself as one of the most potent symbols of public school privilege and came to be regarded as an article denoting superiority. This phenomenon is marked by the abandonment at Eton College of the silk top hat in favour of the straw boater shortly after the war.
A particularly interesting aspect of the school boater was its sheer impracticality. Rather than the high-crowned boaters common as an item of costume for adult men, the school boater for both boys and girls tended to be particularly flat, with a very low crown, which, coupled with the fact that they were rarely made to measure, meant that they sat with some difficulty upon the head. As a consequence, it was often necessary to secure the hat with cords or elastic to ensure it remained on the head.
Boys from Harrow School.
Colin Symes and Daphne Meadmore have argued that “…the school uniform is something of an anomaly, conferring on its wearers a state of deference and dependence that denotes them to be the subjects of administration rather than its architects.” They further note that “…the wearing of uniform generally denotes inferior rank and status, with the right to wear ‘normal’ dress one of the privileges being conferred on the figures in authority.” One is inclined to wonder if the intrinsic impracticality of the straw boater came to be favoured by English public schools as a contradictory symbol denoting extra-mural privilege, and intra-mural subjectivity.
Boaters as worn by students of Kent College in Canterbury, c. 1952.
The impractical design of the boater, had, however, one important advantage. The low, flat, stiff form of the boater also made it ideal for being tossed in the manner of a Frisbee. According to Alexander Davidson, it was commonplace for boys to amuse themselves by skimming their boaters under passing buses with the object of having it pass through to the other side. Naturally, there must have been many incidents where this aim was not achieved, and in many instances, an unsuccessful throw might well have resulted in shouts of delight from the boater’s owner, for amongst school boys forced to wear them, the boater was commonly despised. Rather than acting as an artefact commanding respect, throughout the post-war period in particular, the boater became an object of derision in a world which had become less forgiving of effete signifiers of privilege and it was often despised equally by those forced to wear it and those who saw it worn. So hated was the boater by some students that they ritually burned it when their schooling had finished.
The aggression and derision brought upon dayboys who were forced by school rules to wear their boaters at all times outside of school grounds only increased this resentment. Kent College in Canterbury insisted on the wearing of boaters well into the 1970s. The 1985 Centenary Book carried this reminiscence from a dayboy who enrolled at the school in 1967:
Stiff as a board, uncompromising, blatantly assertive (and impossible to hide -it would not even fit in a briefcase) it was a symbol of the worst aspects of the public school ethos… One evening I was walking home with my boater perched awkwardly atop my head like an inverted nest when a boy from the local secondary modern school grabbed it and sent it spinning across a field. To the wearer the hat was an embarrassment – to the beholder, an object of ridicule.
The following panel from a comic strip of 1970 is a fine illustration of the negative social consequences of being marked by such an obvious signifier of privilege.
As a consequence of its unpopularity and increasing levels of harassment, most schools abandoned the straw boater as a compulsory part of uniform during the 1970s, although some schools, such as Harrow still enforce wearing of the boater.
Life is a Cabaret, Old Chum
Roland Barthes argued in “The Diseases of Costume,” that “in all the great periods of theatre, costume had a semantic value; it was not only there to be seen, it was also there to be read, it communicated ideas, information, or sentiments.” This is certainly true of the boater hat as it was of the bowler. The ubiquitousness of the bowler hat, and its many and varied uses by the upper, middle and working classes primarily throughout the period 1850-1950, enshrined it as a symbol of modernity. Indeed its ubiquity made it one of the preferred props of entertainers of both the stage and screen, usually for comic purposes, because it can be used so successfully to represent such a multiplicity of different caricatures. Barthes points to the relationship between the item of costume and “what Brecht calls its social gestus, the external, material expression of the social conflicts to which it bears witness.” When used as costume by performers, the boater and the bowler are capable of lending the wearer automatic recognition as one of the agents of a multiplicity of social situations and conflicts.
In the 1920s and 30s, the boater became synonymous with the French chansonier and actor Maurice Chevalier. Maurice Chevalier leaves us with perhaps the most enduring image of a boater, or canotier as it is known in the French, tipped forward almost to the point of blindness above his jutting lower lip. The hat generally had always been a significant prop amongst entertainers. Indeed the earliest vaudeville acts took the form of chapeaugraphy, an act using only a crownless, adjustable hat rim which was manipulated to assist in impersonations of the innumerable hat varieties and the type of person signified by the wearing of a particular type of hat.
Changing his expression to suit each new shape, the chapeaugraphist was able to portray dozens of different characters – male and female, haughty and abject – in quick succession.
The success of chapeaugraphy lay in the fact that until the second World War hat-wearing and hat culture was a part of every day life. The significance of the hat as an essential item of everyday wear cannot be underestimated.
Having been so long established as a staple prop of stage, vaudeville, and barbershop, it is hardly surprising that upon first trying on a boater hat, I immediately started to impersonate a tap-dancer then burst into song, and had I at the time been armed with a full-length umbrella, I should certainly have swung this by the handle and perpetrated further acts of mock-vaudevillian silliness. This seems to be something of a universal phenomenon, at least amongst my own circle of friends, who I do not wish to suggest are representative of the wider public, for whenever I have a guest, should they happen to pick up the boater out of curiosity to place it upon their heads, they almost invariably tilt it forward across the forehead, break into a brief little step or two, and occasionally go so far as to drop to one knee and throw their arms wide in expectation of applause.
Having long been abandoned by most schools as a part of school uniform and with the retreat of vaudeville stage act to nostalgic obscurity, the boater primarily survives in its original informal role as an item of leisure wear. Whilst something of a sartorial anachronism there is, nonetheless, a degree of mobility in the way it is perceived as the negative associations of compulsory boaters recede, leaving it free to exist purely as an article of fashion.
The Cambridge Punt-Chauffeur’s Boater
On the river Cam in Cambridge the boater is still worn by the punt chauffeurs who provide tourists with river tours throughout the year. Both of the major punting companies, Tyrrells and Scudamores, include the boater as a compulsory item of uniform. The uniform is subject to seasonal variations and occasional innovation, but generally consists of a pair of light tan trousers or long shorts, a white collared shirt and a waistcoat, and of course, the boater. Whilst the punt chauffeurs are strongly encouraged to wear the boater at all times, the uniform regulations are not heavily enforced and it is not uncommon to see punt chauffeurs without boaters. Nonetheless, the majority of punt chauffeurs do wear the boater, creating an affable image of leisured decency, lending formality without the stifling austerity of school attire.
Whilst chauffeurs essentially perform a service role and are expected to show respect for and deference to customers, their position is also a prestigious one for they are generally understood to be University of Cambridge students and the University’s reputation is usually sufficient to ensure an immediate expectation of good character. More often than not, however, Cambridge punt chauffeurs are in fact “townies” or travellers on a working holiday. The reinforcement of a sense of tradition which the boater provides, combined with the context in which the chauffeurs are employed, helps to maintain a deception which many punters actively encourage by falsely claiming to be a member of a particular college. The costume also helps to discourage the tourists from feeling that they are in some way being tricked should the accent of their punt chauffeur not match the well-honed aristocratic tones they were expecting.
Apart from reinforcing what is perceived to be an English tradition, the boater lends an element of the entertainer to the chauffeur, who acts throughout the trip as a tour guide, providing detailed information on the history of the university and the colleges along the river. Thus, within the context of the river Cam, the punt chauffeur enjoys a combination of the prestige of the university and the vaudevillian performer, both of which are exploited according to both the mood of the chauffeur and their captive audience. Many chauffeurs take the opportunity to spice their tour with banter and regale the passengers with saucy anecdotes about student life.
Indeed, before his dismissal, one punt chauffeur with whom I was acquainted, Bradley, was notorious for inventing the entire tour whenever chauffeuring groups with very little or no English. Armed with and no doubt emboldened by his vaudevillian prop, Bradley on one occasion declared that Kings’ College Chapel was in fact an illusion constructed through mirrors which had been erected by the Germans during their occupation of England in 1943. Bradley was also notorious for re-naming the bridges after his close friends.
On the whole, amongst the Cambridge chauffeurs the boater is treated more with amusement or pride than derision, and during a long summer day spent touting and punting, it affords valuable protection against the sun. It also affords basic amusement on slow days as it can be tossed about, swung upon the forefinger, or flipped, donned and doffed in emulation of those entertainers who have given hats such as the boater their distinctive meaning and style.
Appadurai, Arjun, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge, 1986.
Barthes, Roland, “The Diseases of Costume,” in Critical Essays (1964), trans. Richard Howard, Northwestern University Press, 1972.
Alexander Davidson, Blazers, Badges and Boaters: a Pictorial History of School Uniform, London, 1990.
Ginsburg, Madeleine, The Hat : Trends and Traditions, London, 1990.
Glassie, Henry, “Artefacts: Folk, Popular, Imaginary and Real,” in Marshall Fishwick and Ray B. Browne (eds.) Icons of Popular Culture, Ohio, 1970.
Harrison, Michael, The History of the Hat, London, 1960.
Hopkins, Suzie, The Century of Hats : Headturning style of the Twentieth Century, Sydney, 1999.
McDowell, Colin, Hats : Status, Style, and Glamour , New York : Thames and Hudson, 1997.
Probert, Christina, (ed.) Hats in Vogue Since 1910, London, 1981.
Robinson, Fred Miller, The Man in the Bowler Hat : his History and Iconography, Chapel Hill, 1993.
Shields, Jody, Hats : a Stylish history and Collector’s Guide, portraits by John Dugdale, additional photographs by Paul Lachenauer, New York, 1991.
Symes, Colin & Meadmore, Daphne, “Force of Habit: the School Uniform as a Body of Knowledge,” in Erica McWilliam & G. Taylor (eds.), Pedagogy, Technology and the Body, New York, 1996.
 Suzie Hopkins, The Century of Hats: Headturning style of the Twentieth Century, Sydney, 1999, p. 48.
 Fred Miller Robinson, The Man in the Bowler Hat : his History and Iconography, Chapel Hill, 1993, p. 3.
 Colin McDowell, Hats: Style, Status, and Glamour, New York, 1997, p. 98.
 Michael Harrison, The History of the Hat, London, 1960, pp. 162-3
 Harrison, The History of the Hat, pp. 162-3.
 McDowell, Hats, p. 83.
 McDowell, Hats, p. 221.
 Alexander Davidson, Blazers, Badges and Boaters: a Pictorial History of School Uniform, London, 1990, p. 32.
 Harrison, The History of the Hat, pp. 162-3; Christina Probert, (ed.) Hats in Vogue Since 1910, London, 1981, pp. 55-56.
 Davidson, Blazers, Badges and Boaters, p. 32.
 Davidson, Blazers, Badges and Boaters, p. 31.
 Colin Symes, & Daphne Meadmore, “Force of Habit: the School Uniform as a Body of Knowledge,” in Erica McWilliam & G. Taylor (eds.), Pedagogy, Technology and the Body, New York, 1996, pp. 171-191; p. 176.
 Symes, & Meadmore, “Force of Habit,” p. 178.
 Davidson, Blazers, Badges and Boaters, p. 30.
 Davidson, Blazers, Badges and Boaters, p. 29.
 Davidson, Blazers, Badges and Boaters, p. 28.
 Davidson, Blazers, Badges and Boaters, p. 35.
 Image reproduced from http://www.histclo.hispeed.com/style/head/hat/hat-boat.html
 Hopkins, The Century of Hats, p. 48.
 Roland Barthes, “The Diseases of Costume,” in Critical Essays (1964), trans. Richard Howard, Northwestern University Press, 1972, p. 41.
 Robinson, Man in the Bowler Hat, pp. 1-12.
 Barthes, “The Diseases of Costume,” p. 41.
 McDowell, Hats, p. 83.
 McDowell, Hats, p. 73.
 McDowell, Hats, p. 73.
 Hopkins, The Century of Hats, p. 48.