Illustration: Jerry Hoare
“It was George’s straw hat that saved his life that day.”
Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K Jerome, 1889
Few items of apparel have such rosy associations with long, lazy days on the inland waterways as the straw boater. Now something of a novelty item confined to school uniforms, jobbing Cambridge punters and paunchy blokes singing ‘Hello Marylou’ in four-part close harmony, the boater’s history is dashing, democratic, and oddly intertwined with the Bedfordshire town of Luton.
In Hats: Style, status and glamour (1992) fashion historian Colin McDowell describes the boater as “a jaunty, cheeky upstart of a style, never to be taken too seriously”. Its heyday was somewhere between the 1880s and the 1920s, but the boater goes back a lot further, and in The History of the Hat (1960), Michael Harrison suggests that its origins lay in the flat-topped hats of varnished straw worn by sailors in the late 1700s.
In its time, the boater was pleasingly unisex and universal, and could be deceptively formal for something made out of coiled lengths of plaited straw. School children, vaudeville performers, clergymen, respectable matrons on picnics, and raffish young men in the Jerome K Jerome mould all favoured the natty, flat-topped hats with their occasionally gaudy ribbons – and a hot summer meant the hat-makers of Luton would be working overtime.
The unpretentious town of Luton is an unlikely central character in the story of the boater. Best known for car factories and having a London airport that’s not very near London at all, Luton was in fact at the heart of the UK’s straw-plaiting and hat-making industries for the better part of 200 years. The silica-rich soils meant that Bedfordshire straw was unusually strong and supple, and a 2013 study of Luton’s hat-making traditions by Historic England found that there was a thriving straw-plaiting industry in the area as far back as the 1680s. When cheaper plait from China killed the domestic straw industry in the late 19th century, the versatile workers of Luton simply transplanted themselves further down the production line. They stopped plaiting the straw and started making the imported stuff into hats instead. As the boater surged in popularity, land-locked Luton became boater HQ.
The boater boom, though, was relatively short-lived. By the time the First World War was over, the style was already in decline. Men about town were increasingly being seduced by the more dashing Panama, while society ladies were falling out of love with the boater for other reasons. According to Harrison, “boaters were popular with women and girls at the end of the 19th century, but, as they were adopted for orphanages, the boaters were given up by the socially self-conscious.” It seems universal appeal isn’t always a desirable thing in a hat after all.
While the Luton hat industry pretty much fizzled out in the post-Second World War years, the local love affair with the boater has endured. Luton Town Football Club are known as the ‘Hatters’, and their crest features a little boater with a blue ribbon. There are still companies in town making the traditional straw hats, and in August 2014, 797 Lutonians set a Guinness World Record for the most boater-wearers gathered in one place.
The straw boater is well overdue a revival, and if you fancy sporting one yourself, you could combine a trip to acquire one in Luton with a day out on the Grand Union Canal, half an hour’s drive away. Just be sure not to commit the cardinal sin of wearing your hat straight. As McDowell explains, a boater is a hat that “demands a rakish angle”.