The coalman's fedora
November 9, 2012 7:00 AM   Subscribe

Hats and Social Class in Pre-Internet England: I recall part of an episode of Are You Being Served where Captain Peacock was castigating another male employee (perhaps Mr Grainger) for wearing a bowler hat to work when bowlers were reserved for managers. Now, we all know Peacock to be stuffy, stodgy, etc., but was this a real thing? We're different styles of hat ever reserved for a particular class?
posted by bluejayway to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Are you sure he didn't just mean reserved for managers in Grace Brothers?
posted by Jehan at 7:12 AM on November 9, 2012

"The working-class man's attempt to blur class boundaries by wearing the bowler was satirized in the early films of Charlie Chaplin. Eventually, the bowler became an icon of the bourgeoisie, as immortalized in Magritte's famous painting of a middle-class man wearing a bowler (Robinson 1993: 166) and, after the Second World War, was worn mainly by middle-class businessmen.."

The Social Meanings of Hats and T-shirts
Diana Crane
excerpted from
Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing

posted by infini at 7:21 AM on November 9, 2012 [9 favorites]

Reserved in the sense of being hustled off to jail for wearing the wrong hat, no. Reserved in the sense of class markers enforced by strong social conventions, absolutely.

For example, but pointing in the opposite direction, I remember seeing a reference to a woman being outraged/mortified because her young adult daughter had been seen talking to a man wearing a cloth cap.
posted by Bruce H. at 7:36 AM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Although, further back in time, clothing and textile choices were reserved by law for different classes. (Not specifically hats though)

English Sumptuary Laws of the Middle Ages
The Medieval English Sumptuary Laws of the Middle Ages were well known by all of the English people. The penalties for violating Sumptuary Laws could be harsh - fines, the loss of property, title and even life! The Medieval period had been dominated by the Feudal system - everyone knew their place! Clothing provided an immediate way of distinguishing 'Who was Who'. Medieval clothing and fashion like everything else was dictated by the Pyramid of Power which was the Feudal System and the Sumptuary Laws which were passed by the Medieval Kings of England.
posted by infini at 7:41 AM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's in "The Think Tank," and it's Mr. Rumbold castigating Captain Peacock.
posted by steef at 7:45 AM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

In the first place, yes, certain hats were strongly associated with social class. But this wasn't restricted by sumptuary law or by etiquette.

Flat caps were associated with the working classes and bowler hats were associated with blue-collar workers. If the male employee were a stockboy, you would have expected him to wear an overall, and a flat cap would be a better match for that. If he were a customer-facing shop assistant, he might well have worn a suit and tie especially in an upscale department store, and a bowler hat is obviously a better match for that than a flat cap.

The only way Captain Peacock would have been in the right to correct this employee, however, would be if he were wearing the hat indoors, instead of taking it off and putting it away with his coat and umbrella when he arrived at work. It would be incorrect for the employee to wear any hat indoors, bowler or otherwise, and if he were wearing it on the shopfloor that's a big faux pas.

However, if the employee wore the hat en route to work and took it off when he arrived, Captain Peacock had no business correcting him for it. He only had any say over his employees' dress when they were at work; employees then, as now, were free to be style criminals outside of work.

It doesn't seem that Captain Peacock was critiquing the employee's style (since a hat would have been removed and thus irrelevant once inside the store) nor his etiquette (assuming the hat was in fact removed) so the only thing this could be about, is class. Captain Peacock was criticizing the employee for getting ideas above his station, from the sounds of it. This certainly was a thing, as Britain was and is very class-conscious and is obsessed with outward markers of class status. Etiquette-wise, Captain Peacock would have had absolutely no grounds for saying anything at all. Nevertheless it was the kind of thing that did happen and was said, absolutely. So it was something that *could have* happened, even though it shouldn't have.
posted by tel3path at 7:51 AM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I realize this isn't directly relevant to your question, but there were certainly benefits that were very strictly reserved for managers to the point of obsessiveness.

As a single data point, upon receiving a particular promotion, my father, who worked in the British Civil Service, was granted a carpet for his office, however his co-worker, with whom he shared the office, had not been raised to such lofty heights and so was not allowed such an honour. Result: only my father's half of the office was carpeted (I believe the carpet was even cut in half to allow this).

On preview, as tel3path says, the British can be very "obsessed with outward markers of class status" (may be less so now, but it gets worse the further back in time you go).
posted by teselecta at 7:55 AM on November 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

I think Bruce H. is right - normally a matter of peer pressure and convention, not really admonition from the boss. More about your feeling stupid in a hat that made inappropriate social claims than about being rebuked.

Both my grandfathers wore flat caps, the badge of the working man (in those days you always wore a hat of some kind, of course). But whereas maternal grandad, a manual labourer, never wore any other hat, paternal gramps, a technician, would put on a fedora for smart occasions.

There were of course some occupations where the bowler was de rigueur or traditional, not always upper class ones by any means.

Are You Being Served isn't really to be taken seriously, of course, but it is reasonable to suggest that Captain Peacock might have been induced both by his current profession and by his putative military past to have rather more rigid views than most. I believe that for certain sections of the British army the bowler was mandatory dress for officers in civvies and in the City.
posted by Segundus at 7:55 AM on November 9, 2012

It's made a little more confusing by the way the flat cap has in recent years been adopted as a middle-class fashion statement. When I was young, in the 1980s/90s, the flat cap was still absolutely a working-class hat, associated with manual labour in factories or mines. The bowler hat has mostly disappeared now (I work near the City).

It still happens now to an extent - the baseball cap is considered a very lower-class type of accessory, worn by 'chavs' or kids in gangs and rarely by the middle-classes.
posted by mippy at 7:58 AM on November 9, 2012

Mind, I have never seen Are You Being Served? so I can only guess at the character's motives here.
posted by mippy at 7:58 AM on November 9, 2012

Hats and other items of dress certainly have been markers of social group.

But I don't think hat-wearing was very prevalent in England in the 1970s though.

I guess Captain Peacock and Mr Grainger would have been throwbacks even in the 70s, maybe with attitudes and dress sense formed in the 50s.
posted by philipy at 8:05 AM on November 9, 2012

You still see bowlers around - notably on Remembrance Sunday, where non-uniform soldiers of all classes wear a bowler. And the old Oxford Bulldogs, who were not "manager" class, used to wear them as part of their uniform, as recently as 2003.

And you did see the flat cap on the upper and upper middle classes in the mid twentieth century. When they hunted grice, and the gamekeeper's flat cap displaced the deerstalker. I don't think you would ever have seen a deerstalker on a working man.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:41 AM on November 9, 2012

Simpsons of Piccadilly (the inspiration for AYBS, now a Waterstone's) was a throwback even in the 70s.

That it's Mr Rumbold talking down to Captain Peacock changes the dynamics: you have the stuffy ex-officer who might consider a bowler part of his civilian dress being told that it's inappropriate at Grace Bros. on account of his lack of seniority. And then you have Mr Humphreys walking in with the homburg that's supposedly designated for senior floor staff like Capt. Peacock, which sets off the standard farce trope of oneupmanship.

Did Simpson's have such a policy, or were Croft and Lloyd simply exaggerating? I have no idea, but based on the clip (thanks steef) it feels like it was grounded in some kind of truth about how dress codes were enforced -- if not through hats, then through other markers.
posted by holgate at 10:25 AM on November 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

You still see men wearing bowlers nowadays in London in the same way that you see Scotsmen wearing kilts or young Indian women wearing saris. i.e. They might do it for an occasion to express their identity, because it's traditional then, and to enjoy dressing up. But it's not exactly a common thing, and they're certainly not likely to turn up on an average workday dressed like that.

Captain Peacock might be the analog of today's elderly Indian women that still habitually wear saris, because it's what they've done all their life. I don't have any hard data on hat wearing in 70s England though, but it's hard to think of a media portrayal of someone wearing a hat in that era unless they were a comic character or it was part of a uniform.

On a side note, being a Sherlock Holmes fan, I once tried quite hard to find a deerstalker to buy. Luckily for me I failed to find one, so I was saved from looking like a complete dork.
posted by philipy at 10:28 AM on November 9, 2012

teselecta - the size of carpet, along with the number of drawers and style of desk and, I believe, a metal waste paper basket and desk lamp, were strictly apportioned to HM civil servants according to their grade in the Service. This allocation remained in place until the late 1980s.

I once spent some time at a museum that until recently employed a version of the grading system for scientific employees, being at the time a non-departmental government body whose staff were (are), from a cultural standpoint, indistinguishable from university academics. Merit and duration promotions meant that, without any substantive change in duties, researchers would increase in grade, whilst occasionally administrative decisions would result in decreases. Each of these would be followed, almost immediately, by someone in a brown coat from maintenance arriving and depositing small squares of moth-eaten Wilton carpet, replacing desks, or in some cases removing desk lamps and waste paper baskets. Arrivals would be met with amiable confusion, removals by inchoate rage. The eventual abandonment of the system resulted in improved morale all round, and ten years later the discovery of a stockroom filled with large piles of carpet squares, desks, lamps and waste paper baskets, carefully stored in order to cope with possible demand.
posted by cromagnon at 1:17 PM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

One of the running gags of AYBS? is how far behind the times Grace Brothers is. It would make perfect sense that the explicit or implicit company dress code would be rigid enough that Mr. Rumbold would berate Captain Peacock for wearing the "wrong" hat.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:25 PM on November 9, 2012

And Mr. Lucas, who is very slightly more hip, is admonished for not wearing a hat at all which would have been more in keeping with the current style.
posted by marylynn at 4:15 PM on November 9, 2012

Definitely part of the gag is that in the 1970s those rules were becoming relaxed so that Mr. Lucas represented the societal norm, and the intersection of that with these archaic, not-entirely-yet-anachronistic rules was the derivation of the humor. But again, it's only enforced by class pressure, and wearing the wrong thing would be an embarrassing signal that you considered yourself above your station. Or would have been when Mr. Rumbold was Mr. Lucas's age.
posted by dhartung at 4:51 PM on November 9, 2012

It would make perfect sense that the explicit or implicit company dress code would be rigid enough that Mr. Rumbold would berate Captain Peacock for wearing the "wrong" hat.

And there's irony in Captain Peacock's protestation against those "archaic rules" -- which, of course, he then happily imposes on those beneath him.

(Not many hats on display in these home movies from London in 1974/5.)
posted by holgate at 5:09 PM on November 9, 2012

(Not many hats on display in these home movies from London in 1974/5.)

Nice vids, but to be fair if you were going to see evidence of bowler hats you'd probably have to go "The City" (i.e. financial district) rather than the West End and such places. Even now if you go on the short tube ride from one to the other the change in dress code is striking.

The only video I could dig up of The City area is this from 1970. Not a lot of hats there either, though I think I spotted one bowler. But even then I guess it could be summer, and maybe people wore hats in winter. If you've got the inclination to scan all of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) I think you'll spot a few hats here and there.
posted by philipy at 8:00 PM on November 9, 2012

Yes, I've seen a fair bit of archive footage of City gents crossing London Bridge (walking across from the station) with bowlers on display, though it's generally from an earlier period. This BFI film of the London rush hour in 1970 also shows a few hats, albeit at high speed, but not a preponderance of them.

(And Simpson's -- and presumably Grace Bros., in spirit -- is/was very much West End.)
posted by holgate at 9:22 PM on November 9, 2012

It seems one of the writers worked in Simpsons briefly in the 1950s. So I guess the characters and situations could well have been a creative mashup of the 50s and 70s, which would explain a lot.
posted by philipy at 11:45 PM on November 9, 2012

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