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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Where Did You Get That Hat?

Personal Narrative Dept.: The photo below was taken about forty years (and twice forty pounds) ago, not long after I graduated from high school. It reminded me that the hat therein pictured – a classic bowler – still sits in my closet, in its original box, hand carried from London. Not surprisingly, there’s a story attached . . .


The author relaxing between takes.
THE BOWLER HAT, or derby, or billycock hat, dates from the mid-19th century, and the best story attached to its legend of origin is that a design was sought to avoid losing one’s hat to an ill-placed tree branch while on horseback. The bowler’s popularity in England was matched in the U.S. as it became the topper of choice for cowboys and other personalities of the American west.

I made my second visit to London in mid-February 1973. I was a high-school senior. The visit, like one I made the year before, was for the purpose of play-seeing. Most of the students also were involved in the school’s plays, which meant they weren’t averse to partying. You may think that the sports crowd would have a lock on high-spirited carryings-on. You would be wrong.

Trouble was, I have a layer of reserve that’s like an igneous crust. What I wanted to do on this trip was declare my passion to any or all of the several young women with us who’d captured my heart. What I did instead was indulge in oddball sightseeing.

This meant avoiding the Tower of London in favor of finding the Thames-side walkway where a scene from “A Clockwork Orange” had been filmed, and visiting the Houses of Parliament only because that’s where the finale of “The Ruling Class” takes place.

My friend Craig Borders shared a hotel room with me, and on one memorable excursion we used a bus as transport – possibly to visit the BBC, as recounted here – and rode in a front side on the upper deck. Across the aisle, an attractive woman commandeered her two young daughters. One of them sat in her lap; the other, who may have been five or six, stood by the large window in front of us. Each time a bus passed us, going in the opposite direction, the younger of the two girls called out a number. “29! 94! 57A!” The bus number is displayed on the upper right (as you’re looking at it) corner, but the ones going by bore no relation to the numbers the little girl was shouting. This was annoying the older daughter, who turned to her mother and said, “She’s not very bright, is she?” To which the mother calmly replied, “Children this age aren’t supposed to be bright. Just decorative.”

By early 1973, the global oil crisis was exacerbated in England by labor unrest in the coal industry. To conserve power, electrical brown-outs were scheduled throughout the country. From my upper-story hotel room window, I could see the patchwork of light and dark created throughout the city by the selective electrical shutoffs.

I’m going to guess that it was on our first full day in the city – Monday, February 19 – that Craig and I headed for Regent Street so that I could purchase a bowler hat. Although it might seem eccentric – and I already had a reputation for sartorial eccentricity – we saw many men in the city unselfconsciously sporting these lids.

Late in the 19th century a man named George Dunn began selling hats in England on the streets of Birmingham; four decades later he had over 200 stores bearing his name, one of which was our destination. (Alas, the chain would fail in the mid-90s.)

The street was filled with brilliant winter sunshine. The shop, however, was dark, per the brownout schedule. But not that dark: as our eyes accustomed, we saw that it was lit by candles, a magically antique effect that made it see as if we’d just wandered through a time-travel door.

A half-dozen well-dressed, well-groomed attendants awaited. “May we help you, sir?” said one. I explained my purpose. “Ah,” said another. “Let’s have a look.”

I removed the hat I was wearing. This fellow studied my head. “Seven-and-a-half long oval, I think,” he said to one of the others. This fellow nodded and vanished for a moment, returning with a large box, which he held while one of the others opened it and removed the hat within, inverted it, and placed it on my head. Another attendant gave the hat a crisp tilt. Yet another man appeared with a mirror. I and the phalanx surrounding me peered at my reflection. Murmurs of approbation filled the room.

The hat was reboxed. An invoice was scribbled. I saved that invoice for many years, but time is rarely kind so such collections. I no longer remember the price, but it wasn’t much. I paid in cash, tucked the box under my arm, and an attendant had the door open as Craig and I approached it. The whole transaction couldn’t have taken more than five minutes. It was the most cheerful purchase I’ve ever made.

Thanks no doubt to the security of that box, my Dunn & Co. bowler has survived the years in remarkably good shape. And I believe it’s time once again to embrace my eccentricity and wear the damn thing again.

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