The Polarising Popularity of the Flat Cap

James Dean wearing a flat cap
Image credit: Le Salon de la Mappemonde / CC BY-ND 2.0

Have you ever been cautioned against wearing a flat cap? I imagine I’m not alone in being met by unambiguous looks of distaste on the faces of friends and family whenever I step out wearing this particular garment. 

There’s a Broad City episode where Abbi, one of the show’s leads, has a similar experience. She receives as a gift a garish yellow hat, somewhere between a mariner’s cap and a billowing flat cap, and gamely tries to make it work. Inevitably, she encounters raised eyebrows everywhere she turns, until eventually she caves and abandons the hat for good. In a show that specialised in outlandish wardrobe choices, it’s telling that a flat cap would be the item its creators picked as their go-to example of a universally disliked piece of clothing.

In a similar vein, Jacob Gallagher from the Wall Street Journal wrote earlier this year about polling a group of women who agreed that seeing a flat cap on a man was an ‘immediate red flag’.

The flat cap represents a strange paradox, then. It manages to be at once wildly popular, worn as it has been by an array of groups spanning decades, continents and cultures, all while being consistently labelled a controversial wardrobe choice. The entire premise of the WSJ article I mentioned is just how ‘polarizing’ it is as a garment. Spend any time reading about flat caps and you’ll find this sentiment echoed endlessly. 

Being both popular and polarising is an odd combo, but, like Walt Whitman, the flat cap contains multitudes (Walt himself favoured a wide-brimmed felt number, but I have a feeling he’d approve of the populist favourite that is the peaked cap).

Before going any further, there’s another Whitmanesque detail to consider: Like an overstuffed line from ‘Song of Myself’, the list of names for the hat in question seems to stretch on endlessly. There are more than half a dozen variations on the theme of ‘cap’: flat, peaked, paddy, newsboy, golf, driving, cabbie, and even icy. Then there are the regional variants: scally cap (United States), cheese cutter (New Zealand), bunnet (Scotland), dai (Wales), and sixpence (Norway). 

This abundance is matched only by the number of groups that have claimed the cap as their own. Rich and poor, rural and urban, leftist and conservative, Black and white — the peaked cap has rested comfortably on just about any crown throughout its long history. I’ve written before about the 1571 act of parliament that forced any male over the age of six who wasn’t a ‘gentleman’ to wear a woollen peaked hat. It was meant to stimulate the local wool trade and only lasted 26 years, but it proved influential enough to establish a convention that had four centuries worth of men wearing some sort of hat whenever they left the house. It also cemented the long-standing connection between the flat cap and the working classes. 

Whether it’s a Depression-era construction worker, a Yorkshire farmer, or a London cabbie, working men have donned flat caps for centuries. They’ve done so presumably as much for practical considerations as for traditional ones. Peaked caps can be made out of just about anything from linen to leather, they equally offer both warmth and protection from the sun, and can easily be folded and stuffed into a pocket.

For a notorious and more unseemly group of cap-wearers — namely, the Birmingham-based Peaky Blinders gang immortalised in the popular TV show of the same name — the hat’s peak also offered the ideal place to hide deadly razor blades. No wonder the British Labour party of the 1950s were concerned about their so-called ‘flat-cap image’. Of course, the selfsame cap has been a long time favourite of the Right too, whether in the form of country-bound aristocrats or a pint-swigging Nigel Farage. 

Bank robber wearing a flat cap
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

One could spend an afternoon listing other flat cap fans, so I’ll keep it brief and alphabetical. There’s Idris Alba, David Beckham, Leonardo DiCaprio (a quick Google search suggests his surname has something to do with goats, but the man’s styling choices suggest ‘cap’ is really the operative word), Samuel L. Jackson, AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson, LL Cool J, Brad Pitt, and Bruce Springsteen. There are also plenty of photos snapped of classic menswear stalwarts like Paul Newman, James Dean, Alain Delon, Sean Connery, The Duke of Windsor, and Prince Charles sporting scally caps. 

They’ve proven equally popular in various forms of fiction, particularly on the heads of layabouts and lawbreakers. In the former category, there’s the eponymous Andy Capp, the long-running Daily Express comic-strip character who was somehow never too bladdered to forget his signature hat. In the movies, Robert Redford delivered a newsie double-header in the form of Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby and Johnny Hooker in The Sting, and in recent years there has been the phenomenally successful (and aforementioned) Peaky Blinders, as well as the French-language Netflix hit, Lupin

These shows have no doubt sparked much of the recent interest in flat caps, as well as a concurrent backlash. The more the merrier, I say. These are hats that might not be to everyone’s taste, but history shows that they’re open to all in matters of style.

Young George Foreman wearing a flat cap
World Heavyweight Champion George Foreman wearing a flat cap in 1974
Tullio Saba / Public domain