The trend started with the wax jacket. The weatherworn British shooting coat that was once less cutting edge than the Wildfowlers Dinner Dance became fashionable in the nineties: Milanese bankers wore the corduroy-collared garment over pinstriped suits, Parisian designers flaunted its tartan lining, while London stockbrokers recognised each other by its cut. Then the sports jacket was hijacked and given a makeover by New York designer Ralph Lauren. The gilet was adopted by the modelling fraternity, Tattersall shirts appeared on the catwalk and venerable gunmakers started holding spring/summer collections. In fact, the only item from the shooting field not embraced in this great designer rush was the unreconstructed, unloved and unlabelled tweed cap.
The cap remained a garment non-grata with the great fashion houses and the glossy magazines. There was no new Prada cap in the windows of Sloane Street and no supermodel doffing her tweed titfer at a lisping designer. It remained a humble piece of politically incorrect headgear that was, and has been for more than a century, the preserve of the countryman. But this singular status was too good to last suddenly the tweed cap has moved from plough to pavement. The supermarket Asda recently reported an 80 per cent increase in sales of caps over the past two years, almost all in the south of England.
(The chains George fashion range sells caps in traditional tweed style that an Asda spokesman calls retro-shoooting chic.) The fashion house Burberry has introduced a designer cap at £90 and so too has the trendy clothes company Diesel its titfer costs £25. Even the drinks brand Guinness has got in on the act. Last year it produced a Guinness Black cap and this season it has added a Guinness Tartan cap to the collection.
Celebrities, too, have adopted the former countrymans headwear. Madonnas husband Guy Ritchie, a shooting man, has taken to wearing one in London and so too has former Blur guitarist and nouveau countryman Alex James. And those without any connection to rural sports, including the rock group Artic Monkeys, footballer David Beckham and the American film star Samuel L. Jackson, are also to be seen sporting them. This sudden fashioning of the peaked gear, however, cannot disguise what is, in fact, an ancient bit of hat making that has been with us since shortly after the invention of the musket.
In 1571, an Act of Parliament ordained that on Sundays and holidays all males over six years of age, except for nobility and persons of degree, were to wear caps of wool manufactured in England or be fined three farthings a day. This bid to stimulate the woollen trade was repealed at the end of that century but, by then, the short peaked woollen cap had established itself and became recognised as the mark of the rural, and later the urban, working man. By the turn of the 20th century, Kier Hardie, the first Labour MP, wore his long peaked flat hat as a gesture of working-class solidarity when he arrived at Parliament. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum the cap became fashionable at the grandest Edwardian shooting parties when even royalty wore the humble covering.
The renowned Shot Albert Edward, then the Prince of Wales, frequently wore one in the royal familys tweed when out shooting. Between the wars the cloth cap became politically polarised, personified by the Daily Mirrors strip cartoon anti-hero, the chain-smoking, heavy-drinking Andy Capp. It became the mark of the working man as much as the bowler defined the professional classes and the top hat identified the aristocracy. After the war, as Britain turned from a manufacturing-based economy to a service economy, the cloth cap largely disappeared. It was helped on its way by Bob Dylan, who always wore one, and the Beatles, who wore them in the film Help, because the working man did not want to look like a pop star in those days. Only the country tweed number survived, worn by people on shooting sticks and those beating in the woods waving sticks. Occasionally, an out-of-town Sloane Ranger could be seen with one perched on top of her head or a country squire could be witnessed doffing his to the vicar, but to all intents and purpose they had vanished, replaced by the ubiquitous, ugly baseball hat.
Now, after the best part of 50 years, the cap is back in fashion. Lets not carp about the fact that we hung on in there while others of a less discerning nature tossed their headgear away. Rather, lets celebrate the fact that many of us have always worn the tweed cap. And I suggest that, instead of issuing baseball hats to protect the heads of clay pigeon shooters, for example, or using baseball caps to signify membership of shooting clubs, lets instead make the tweed cap the Pringle sweater of our sport.