Did you know Panama hats come from Ecuador, not Panama, or that the only difference between a fedora and a trilby is the width of the ribbon band? Me neither, until I spent a fascinating, laughter-filled hour or so in the company of Roger Snook of T Snook, family-owned hatters and outfitters in Bridport.
I also learned how to tell a British Panama from one bought abroad: since 1861 the band has always been black, a mark of respect for the passing of noted Panama-wearer Prince Albert. It is also worth pointing out that nowhere in the world will you find a Lady Loverley’s chatter cap – or a ferret-catcher’s hat for that matter – but in the West Dorset market town that is fast emerging as a key location for hats and hatters.
Indeed, its annual hat festival is now in its fourth year, having attracted some 9000 people – and their headwear – in 2012. ‘It was a ridiculous idea that grew legs and got out of hand,’ says Roger in a knowingly multi-limbed mixture of metaphors. ‘I’m an engineer by profession and there’s not much in common between a turbine on a dam and a hat – except perhaps me!’
Roger left the former behind in 1987 when he took over the family business started by his grandfather in 1896. Facing up to the harsh economic reality that gentlemen’s outfitters were struggling to survive, he gradually built up the hat side of the business. In that time he has provided pork pie hats for Madness singer Suggs, stovepipe hats for American rock band ZZ Top and Panama bowlers for David Suchet to wear as Poirot. He has beaten Stetson to the punch to find a Boss of the Plains hat for a John Wayne waxwork (‘Stetson wanted twenty weeks to make one up, we had it to them the next day!’) and has sponsored the Chideock Vets, the only cricket team in the UK to wear bowlers – what else?
‘Bridport Hat Festival is a wonderfully British celebration of eccentricity and I love it,’ enthuses Roger. ‘Everybody’s happy, there’s never any trouble – 9000 people all wearing hats, so they’re all in the same gang – and it involves the whole family. There’s music everywhere, entertainment for the youngsters, prizes and every pub and restaurant in town says it’s their best day of the year.’
Roger traces his love of hats back to his schooldays in the Swaziland bush where it was 120 degrees in the shade. He still has his straw boater from 1964 and happily charts the various incidents that befell it during his school career. Heavily reinforced with cardboard and fortified with egg white, it has been repaired with staples and stuck back together with glue. ‘I perfected the fine art of doffing in that hat. A miss would get the full doff, but some of the masters would only get a one-fingered tip. They never seemed to notice – I’m sure their profession packed our teachers off to the colonies to get them out of the way.’
The battered boater is bettered only by Roger’s favourite hat, a 46-year-old Akubra bush hat from Australia. ‘I wear it all the time and it’s only just wearing in now,’ he explains. ‘They’re the Rolls Royce of hats. This one has been all over the place with me. It was run over by a road train and even shot by a .22. Fortunately my head wasn’t in it at the time but the feathers in the band belong to the bird that was standing next to it.’
For all its zaniness, there is also a serious side to Bridport Hat Festival, of which Roger is just as proud. For the first time, this year the leading hat-makers are contacting the Festival committee to book trade stands and hat industry movers and shakers like Caroline Felber, whose boutique and workshop in Lucerne attracts international attention, and designer Matthew Eluwande are expected to return.
‘The support of the hat trade has been crucial, as has that of The Hat magazine,’ says Roger. ‘Kensington and Chelsea College sent four millinery students last year who were able to showcase their skills in front of the hat world, and with enquiries coming from all over Europe and Scandanavia, even the United States, the Hat Festival is truly international.
‘I’m not into haute couture as I don’t really understand it,’ says Roger ‘but the Festival has three professional awards for hat design – Matthew Eluwande’s Spiral Bean won first prize last year – as well as awards for the public, including a children’s award. It means we are being treated seriously and rightly so because, apart from one in Bath that does all ladies’ headwear, there isn’t another hat shop like this between Land’s End and London.’
For all that though, it doesn’t take Roger long to re-unite his passion for hats with his innate sense of fun. His personal hat collection includes a range of treasures: a wooing hat from the Chinese Yi people, a Romanian clop hat worn by single men to attract women and a D’Orsay top hat based on a design from 1864. ‘We’re having some of those blocked up and made as the interest has been phenomenal since we took the name D’Orsay and made it Darcy. It’s all in the marketing, you see. The ferret-catcher’s hat is big enough for you to keep your ferret in now that we’re not allowed to keep them in our trousers and the ’ecky thump hat has enough room to store a black pudding.’
In the absence of a specific hat associated with Dorset, Snooks displays the only known example of the Bridport water helmet. Modelled on the pith helmet for use in the tropics, it has a gutter in the rim for the collection of rainwater in a hollow reservoir below. This acts as both a cooling agent and useful store of drinking water for the adventurous Victorian explorer or noble military man. ‘This model has been tried and tested…with a bottle of Bushmills whiskey!’ laughs Roger.
For all the quirky stories and clever promotion, though, sometimes demand simply appears. Take the 150 African pith helmets Snooks sold last year, for example.
‘That’s nearly three a week. We’ve only got one pith helmet left now. A rugby team bought some of them for a tour of the Basque country and I sold several more to a Duke – I can’t say which one – who wanted his beaters to wear pith helmets so they could be identified at range. ‘I was due a shipment of what I call zebra hats, a striped bush hat that can be screwed up and packed in a bag and still keep its shape, but the container they were in went missing off the coast of Somalia. Now I’ve got visions of these Somali pirates armed to the teeth and wearing my bloody zebra hats!’
You’ve got to take your hat off to Roger – he sure can tell ’em….
Hat terms and hatiquette
– The crown of your hat: The bowl-like top of the hat.
– To don your hat: To put it on by taking the crown and placing the hat on top of your head.
– To doff your hat: To take it off by gripping the crown and lifting the hat up and forward. Keep the interior of the hat facing you, so as not to expose it. It is considered rude to show the lining for a variety of reasons, not least that sweat or dirt may be seen.
– To tip your hat: To take the rim of the hat and lift up slightly, or to take the rim of the hat and gently tug forward with index finger and thumb.
• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine