It's summer season here in the States, and we're all thinking of beaches and sun . . . which got me thinking about hats. Now,
when we historical authors dress our Regency heroes for daily life, sunny or otherwise, only the best will do—boots by Hoby, coats by Weston, pistols by Manton . . . and, of course, hats by Lock & Co.
On my last trip to London, I spent a lot of time strolling along St. James’s Street, which for any Regency aficionado, is pure bliss. Many of the famous shops of the era are still there, including Lock & Co. which is located at No. 6, sitting cheek to jowl with another legendary purveyor of gentlemanly staples—Berry Brothers and Rudd, the famous wine and spirits merchants. Part of No. 6 is still called “The Kiln” because a noted maker of ceramic figurines worked there before James Lock bought his freehold in 1764. (Another arcane but fun fact is that the emporium was built on the site of an old real tennis court constructed for Charles I.) Other neighbors are Truefitt and Hill for men’s grooming essentials, and White’s, the quintessential gentleman’s club.
Lock and Co. has a long and colorful history, as befits the oldest hat emporium in the world. (It’s also one of the oldest family-owned businesses.) And its illustrious client list includes Sir Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin and Princess Kate.
It was founded in 1676, when the Locks, a prosperous merchant family, moved to the western part of London after the Great Plague and Fire of 1666. They took up the freehold lese of seven houses on St. James’s Street, near St. James’s Palace—which to this day has remained the official royal residence of the sovereign of Great Britain, though Buckingham Palace has been used by the Royal family since Queen Victoria took up residence in 1837.) Their neighbor was Robert Davis, a hatter, and the two tradesmen families worked side by side for many years.
I n 1747, James Lock, the grandson of the original Lock patriarch was apprenticed to the Davis clan to learn the trade. As the Davis patriarch had no son, James was groomed to take over the business, and dutifully married Davis’s daughter. During the Seven Years War, he earned a reputation as an excellent military hatter—the officers of many regiments were responsible for purchasing their own supplies.
Men of the Lock family served in the Grenadier Guards during the Peninsular War. But perhaps the most famous snippet from the store’s history during the Napoleonic Wars involves Admiral Horatio Nelson. He designed a special seagoing hat to his own specifications—including a fold-down eyepatch for his bad eye—and placed an order for it with Lock & Co., providing a detailed sketch and notes for them to follow. Alas, it was never picked up, as Nelson and Victory sailed to the Battle of Trafalgar before he returned to England. (A facsimile is on display in the store, along with a copy of the instructions.)
Family history gets a little complicated during the next century, with financial troubles and lawsuits threatening the emporium’s existence. Suffice it to say, the problems were ironed out and today, there are still seven Lock family members involved with the company. Recently, when one of them was asked if the shop would ever be put to another use, he indignantly replied, “Pack the place in, d’you mean? After three hundred years? Not bloody likely! If the Duke of Bedford can keep his family chateau in business we can do the same for ours!”
Here are some of my favorite "hat history" highlights from the Lock & Co. website:
The Bowler Hat
The Bowler, or more properly the Coke hat, was first made by Lock and Co. in 1850 for William Coke, who wanted a stout hat for gamekeepers that would withstand knocks from overhanging tree branches. (Its crown is hardened by numerous layers of shellac.) He also insisted its brim be small, so as not to catch in the wind and be blown off. Legend has it that Coke jumped up and down on the “Bowler” (the name of the actual hatter who fashioned it for Lock) and when he couldn’t crush it announced he was satisfied.
The Straw Boater
The Boater is patterned after the hats issued to naval midshipmen in the late nineteenth century, though the naval hats were floppier and designed for sun protection.
The Trilby is named after the female heroine in a novel by George du Maurier, which was serialized in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Made of soft felt, it became very popular in the early twentieth century as men adopted a more casual, modern look.
Some of the couture creations of the present store are truly works of art, but I confess, I never wear a hat except for sun protection—and then it tends to be a very mundane baseball cap. What about you? Are hats part of your wardrobe? Do you wear them as a fashion statement, or are you like me and wear one for purely practical reasons. Do you have any favorite hat style from history? I love the military-style shakos with ostrich plumes that a Regency heroine would wear for riding.