IF YOU WANT TO
GET AHEAD – GET A HAT!
I admit it. I have from time to time laid my head in ladies’ laps, run my hand through their hair, gurgled incomprehensible love tones in their ears, kissed them sloppily on the cheek. I’m talking of course of my infant years. Though come to think of it…
I still vaguely remember those days, my speech still barely formed, and the feel of their hats as I ran my hand across spiky straw or softest velour, as I played with the wobbling clusters of wax fruit or miniature bluebirds or caressed the smooth length of pheasant feathers. Such tulle-laden adornments women then carried on their heads. Nor did they ever seem to remove these vast uncomfortable objects, leaving them there to be admired throughout the afternoon-tea visit or the occasional brief call to exchange some idle gossip that today would be exchanged in seconds on Twitter or Facebook. But these two arrivistes do not require one to dress up, to put on an appropriate dress and coat; they don’t demand a special brooch or necklace; nor do they provide an opportunity for an outing for the latest hat. All gone now, such opportunities.
Dressing-down is today’s obligation just as dressing-up was in earlier times. I recall the poorest women in our town with their shawls over their heads, women in the drabbest clothes, with workmen’s worn-out boots on their feet. But, for very many other women, it was important to dress as well as they could. Dolly Weston, the heroine in the book, is aware of that. When she first meets young Joshua she explains to him how important it is to dress as well as possible.
'Just because we come from round here doesn't mean we can't do our best for ourselves. And I'll tell ye
this,' she said, peering closely into Joshua's face as if to emphasise what she was saying, 'they
wouldn't've been quite so helpful today, that old devil Forsyth and the folks in the hospital, if I'd gone in
wearin' a shawl round me shoulders and me old work skirt. They'd've been difficult, I'll tell ye. They
couldn't have stopped ye comin' out but they'd've been awkward. And there'd've been more fuss gettin' in
to see your mam.'
Mrs Weston folded her arms across her chest and nodded her head as if she was confirming the truth of
what she had said.
'I keep me eyes open, ye know. If somebody I'm workin' for is throwin' clothes out, things they don't want
any more, I offer to buy them, if I think I can do them up nice. I mean that. I do pay. Not much, mind,
and I do get some bargains.' Mrs Weston looked triumphant, happy. 'It doesn't take all that much to
make things nice. I've got this coat and a jacket and some skirts and a couple of blouses that way.' She
nudged him. 'As I say, it's no good bein' poor and lookin' poor.'
At that time – I’m talking about eighty or ninety years ago - most of the menfolk, high and low, wore three-piece suits – jacket, trousers, waistcoat. You see them on the earliest news films. As for the hats, you would imagine that they had been designed as a daily reminder of the class system and the higher up the ladder a man might be so the height of his headwear proclaimed his place in society.
For instance, you’d find the financiers, the captains of industry, the politicians, all of them in top hats except when they were on the grouse moors. The only one in our family to wear a top hat was my uncle Bob who wore his when, as an undertaker, he led a procession of mourners to the cemetery.
Then there were the clerks and shopkeepers out and about, but on their heads a bowler hat. Aspiring men, indicating that they were a little rung or two up the social ladder. Just that little bit …is the word ‘classier’?
And then there were the football crowds, mostly working class men, pretty well every one of them in suits and most of them wearing flat caps.
In the book there is a reminder of the social significance of men’s hats, and the bowler and the cap in particular, when Dolly’s brother puts on a suit belonging to her husband..
'This is nicer,' she had said, offering him a shirt with a blue stripe, 'with that suit.' Then he had to
struggle a second time with the celluloid collar.
Now Rob would try the bowler. 'Might as well look a toff,' he said. He looked at himself in the mirror,
testing it at various angles.
'No,' he said at last. 'A dutt's not right on me. I don't look right in a gaffer's hat.'
He placed the bowler on the chair beside the table.
'That's better,' he said when Dolly offered him the cloth cap.
But today, it matters less. The man in t-shirt and jeans: is he a boilermaker or a banker? The girl in the frilly top and black tights: what is she, where does she stand in terms of social status? You just can’t tell.
Times have changed.
Hope you found this interesting. If you did, please pass it on.
Back next week.
And Such Great Names as These by Allen Makepeace
Sample or purchase this e-book on http://smashwords.com/books/view/66884
This book is also available on Amazon Kindle
75% of the book’s profits go to the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association