Beanie Hats: Warm and Woolly with Way Too Many Names

Man wearing a yellow knit cap
Image credit: Paulo Silva on Unsplash

There is surely no item of clothing with more names than the humble knit hat. You might say this rivalrous nomenclature is inversely proportional to the simplicity of its design. Surely a hat by any other name is just as cosy? Yet, depending on where you’re from, you might know this knit head covering as a beanie, watch cap, ski hat, skullcap, sock hat, sipple cap, Mössa, bobble hat, jeep or Radar cap, Benny hat (if you’re a Brit of a certain generation), toboggan (if you’re in the American South), chook or chuke (if you’re from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula), or as the famously hard to spell toque, touque, or tuque (if you’re of Canadian extraction). And, unbelievably, this seems to be just the bobble at the tip of an iceberg-shaped hat. Any degree of internet-based digging will reveal innumerable — and often admittedly dubious — synonyms for the simple woollen hat.

The knit cap’s history is just as motley as its etymology. As with so many garments with basic designs and essential functions, the precise lineage of this hard-working bit of warming gear is difficult to trace with real precision. Many sources date its origins to antiquity when emancipated slaves during the Hellenistic period in Rome wore a brimless felt cap known as a pileus. Indeed, this early symbol of freedom still has a hold on our collective imagination, expressed not least in yet another nickname: the liberty cap. As Derek Guy explains, ‘During the 16th century, books about Roman iconography depicted Libertas, the Roman goddess of liberty, wearing the pileus. This powerful symbolism between cap and liberty would be carried through the three major revolutions in England, France, and the United States.’ Who knows, perhaps there is an alternative timeline in which the Statue of Liberty wears not a crown with seven symbolic spikes but a pileus-style knit cap.

If you’re less concerned with lofty ideals and more interested in cold-weather practicality, any number of frosty climates could lay claim to the original woollen hat, but the Welsh Monmouth cap is often cited as the earliest example. It was named for the town of Monmouth whose proximity to the wool-producing centre of Archenfield made it something of a knitting hub and whose signature product became a round cap with a button on top. During the 15th and 16th centuries, these spread throughout Britain and Europe and even reached the shores of the New World. 

Vintage man on a boat wearing a watch-cap
Image credit: Australian National Maritime Museum on The Commons / No known copyright restrictions

Knit caps would become a favourite among soldiers and sailors who prized tightly spun hats made of worsted wool for their ability to repel rain and sea spray. In fact, the term ‘watch cap’ derives its name from American naval sailors during WWII who wore the style while keeping a lookout, or ‘standing watch’, on deck. Moreover, pictures from the time reveal that what is often derided as a hipster affectation of wearing a watch cap rolled high over one’s ears dates as far back as the ‘shipsters’ of old. 

Among these is one of the most famous knit hat aficionados of all time, Jacques Cousteau, the renowned oceanographer and Steve Zissou prototype whose signature look included a bright red watch cap donned at a jaunty angle. Other well-known examples, both real and fictional, include Marvin Gaye, LaKeith Stanfield, David Beckham, U2’s The Edge, Michael Nesmith of The Monkees, Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Joe Pesci in Home Alone, Jean Reno in Léon: The Professional, Jay of Jay and Silent Bob fame, and any number of cartoon characters, including Eric Cartman and Stan Marsh in South Park, Meg Griffin in Family Guy, Louise Belcher in Bob’s Burgers, Jimbo Jones in The Simpsons, Edd from Ed, Edd n Eddy, and Waldo with his tell-tale striped number — provided you can spot it.

In more everyday contexts, beanies are a favourite among skaters, scenesters, sports fans, and those caught outside in the cold. Within menswear they fit easily in just about any context, be it workwear, streetwear, gorpcore, and even tailoring and high fashion (cf. Simon Crompton or Rick Owens, for example). 

Like many a man in a cold climate with a rapidly retreating hairline, I wear some knit hat or other pretty much every time I leave the house for about half the year from late autumn to early spring. As with T-shirts, I have been loath to spend much on beanies over the years, so my current batch variously hails from Amazon, Uniqlo, Carhartt, Patagonia, and military stocks. That said, given how much I wear them, I’m always in the market for a new addition and have variously been tempted by the woolly offerings of Heimat, Nigel Cabourn, Norse Projects, Oliver Spencer, Rototo, Drake’s, and J.Press for the latter’s Shaggy Dog hats. In any event, given the rate at which knit hats tend to go astray, it will no doubt be no time at all before my current stock needs replenishing.

Man wearing a red woollen hat
Image is my own / All rights reserved

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