Caps

For the people, the mafia and the country club

newsboy cap drawing illustration

HISTORY

An accessory of the working classes in Ireland, of the upper-classes in England, of the mafia in Sicily and of enterprising boys in the United States. 

The 'flat cap' has had many connotations in its long history spanning, it is believed, six or seven centuries.

Key events

  • 1300s

    The flat cap style believed to first have been conceived

  • 1500s

    The related 'bonnet' is worn throughout Scotland

  • 1571

    Queen Elizabeth I signs decree that males in Ireland must wear a cap on Sundays and holidays

  • ca. 1890

    The cap makes its way to Southern Italy by way of British seamen

  • 1900

    The flat cap is ubiquitous in Britain. Everybody's wearing one.

  • 1920s

    The flat cap is fashionable with wealthy Americans

  • 1950

    The use of flat caps is now much less common

Essentially a 'cap' is a kind of soft hat without a full brim, but often with a hard, curved part protruding at the front to protect the wearer's eyes from the sun and the rain.

The 'flat cap' is a particular style with its roots most likely in the northern parts of medieval England. One suggestion has been that the flatness of the cap allowed farm workers to lean their heads against the cow while milking it, but the exact origins of its design are unknown.

Across the border, in Scotland, the typical style of flat cap had no brim whatsoever and was akin to the French 'beret'. At this time, the 'cap' was known as the 'bonnet', which is still the word the Scottish use to describe it today.  

In fact, the flat cap would go on to become such a popular item of clothing in several parts of the world that it would eventually come to be known by many names: the bonnet, Irish cap, golf cap, driver's cap, Ivy cap, coppola, sixpence and cheese cutter to name but a few.

Demand by decree and by clan

The many names also illustrate the journey the flat cap has taken through the centuries. Initially worn by workers to keep their heads warm while toiling outdoors, the English gentry later wore refined versions during their hunting excursions and other outdoor leisure activities, hence the term 'golf cap'.

In Scotland, from the 1500s and onwards, the brimless 'bonnet' became a staple of all parts of society, eventually also evolving into the quintessentially Scottish Tam o' Shanter (or just 'tam') style woven in the clan's pattern, or 'tartan', and with a pom-pom in the centre.

In Ireland, too, the cap became pretty much universal, but this was primarily due to royal intervention.

In the mid-1500s, Queen Elizabeth I wished to boost the English wool trade. At the time, virtually all wool cloth in the known world stemmed from England, and the largest export market was the Netherlands, which at the time was held by the Spanish — an enemy of England.

queen elizabeth I england

Queen Elizabeth I presumably didn't wear caps herself, but she ruled that all Irish men should do just that.

Elizabeth, wanting to expand friendly export markets, decided to stimulate demand by decree. In 1571 the parliament passed a new law stating that all males in Ireland, except the gentry, must wear a wool cap on Sundays and holidays, or be fined. Under English rule at the time, the Irish had no choice but to obey.

The law was in effect for 26 years, and by the time it was abolished, the cap had become such a ubiquitous item that it remained an integral part of Irish attire. As the gentry was exempt from the law, however, in Ireland the flat cap became a symbol of 'the people', or the working classes.

Italy and the mafia

Sometime in the late 1800s, the flat cap made its way to Southern Italy, where it came to be known as a 'coppola' — presumably adapted from the English 'cap', except on the island of Sardegna where it is, even today, known as a 'su bonette', very similar to the Scottish 'bonnet'. It is likely that it was British seamen who introduced the Italians to the cap.

Initially the cap took off with tradesmen in Palermo, Sicily's capital and main port. Later, wearing a 'coppola' came to symbolize land ownership, before it eventually became a way of subtly, or not so subtly, displaying an affinity with the mafia and hence that one should not be messed with.

The Godfather al pacino sicily flat cap

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in 'The Godfather' during his stay in Sicily.

Members of the Sicilian mafia would wear their caps a little askew to differentiate themselves from normal cap bearers, but the practice invariably led to the demise of the 'coppola' in the general, law-abiding public.

Today, the mafia no longer wears caps as a symbol, but in Italy the cap is to a certain extent still a symbol of the South — even if today you will find caps in the more fashionable shops of Rome and Bologna, Florence and Milan.

US expansion

Back in Victorian Britain around the turn of the century, the flat cap had become so popular that today you can find old photographs depicting dozens, even hundreds, of men, each and every one of them wearing a flat cap. For a British worker, it was second nature to grab his cap from its hook when walking out the front door. You'd find it difficult to walk out onto a street in London without being surrounded on all sides by flat cap-clad heads.

flat caps on golfers

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the flat cap was extremely popular in much of the anglophone world. The upper classes often wore them during outdoor activities, hence one of its names — the golf cap.

All of this coincided with the so-called third wave of immigration in the USA. Steam-powered ships had made crossing the Atlantic easier and cheaper, and in Southern Europe, recent technological advances in farming methods had created unemployment.

The result was a wave of immigrants, many of them English, Irish, Scottish and Italian — and many of these wearing their beloved flat caps when they disembarked at U.S. immigration on Ellis Island and made their way into the city. New York in 1900 would have been almost as full of flat caps as London.

great gatsby robert redford flat cap

F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel 'The Great Gatsby' is set in the 1920s, and millionaire Jay Gatsby, here played by Robert Redford, naturally wore a cap.

In the 1910s and especially 20s, the flat cap also became fashionable with the well-off Americans who had been born within the borders. When you flung your golf bag onto the back seat of your convertible in Beverly Hills and headed for the Los Angeles country club, you'd probably be wearing a flat cap while doing it.

Decline and rebirth

As the use of hats slowly declined over the 20th century, so did the use of flat caps. Still stylish in the 1930s, by the 1940s they were a much rarer site in both Europe and the US.

Boys, however, stuck with caps for a number of years while men switched to brimmed hats or not wearing a hat at all. In the US this was partcularly true for boys at work, some of them delivering newspapers for some extra cash.

This lent the nickname 'newsboy' cap to the particular style where 6 or 8 triangular pieces are sewn together with a button at the top. The style, a little looser fitting than a traditional flat cap, had also been used by adults for many years, though. Later, the Americans would start 'capping' again, but now primarily in the shape of baseball caps.

In recent years, however, the traditional flat cap seems to have been making a little bit of a comeback. Go for a walk in London, New York or Paris on an autumn day, and you are likely to bump into at least a handful of men sporting the fashion of 16th century Irish workers and 1920s American gentry — and some women too.

Historically a man-only affair, in the 21st century a few women have taken a liking to the cap too — in particular the 'newsboy' style. For men, it seems to mainly be the traditional flat cap that is making a slow return, but the newsboy style is finding its way onto adult male heads as well.

TRIVIA

In the United States the flat cap also goes by the name 'driving cap', as it became popular with chauffeurs who didn't have to worry about the top of their hat hitting the roof of the car.

The flat cap was also adopted by the traditional universites of New England, hence another nickname: the 'Ivy cap'. 

parisian women with caps 1930s

Two Parisian women in the 1930s

Whilst mainly worn by men around the world, in the late 1920s and 30s, some fashionable Parisian women wore full-bodied newsboy caps, also called 'baker boy caps' or 'apple caps'. As the style remained popular with men too, in Paris, flat caps were essentially unisex at this time.

MATERIALS

Flat caps and newsboy caps are typically made from wool, linen or cotton and are usually lined — today often with polyester or viscose, but all-natural caps with silk or cotton linings are still produced by some manufacturers. 

The textiles used can be of a plain weave or sometimes velvet, corduroy or twilled tweed.

The small peak/brim is often stiffened by sewing in a piece of plastic or cardboard, but high-quality producers will use a piece of hard leather.

Styles

Shop caps for men Shop caps for women