ONCE I built a railroad...” my Uncle Chic sort of bellowed the song rather than sang it. At family parties, fuelled by a few sherbets, his rendition of the 1931 Bing Crosby classic was always a bravura performance.
He’d throw an arm wide, gesturing towards the vast dustbowls of America’s Great Depression and the vanishing point of the rail tracks and prosperity. You almost believed he’d been hammering spikes in the blazing sun. And then, out of work and out of luck, he’d utter the final plaintive lines:
Say, don’t you remember, I’m your pal!
Buddy, can you spare a dime?
Looking back now, it seems somewhat surreal conjuring the financial train wreck of America’s past out of the swirly carpets and woodchip wallpaper of a 1970s Scottish living room. But, at a time when a “party piece” was a serious social obligation, no family celebration was complete without it. These day though, it isn’t old songs or family parties that call Uncle Chic to my mind. Or even his tipsy, cryptic warning to my teenage self to “Watch out for the long-haired ones...” which I promptly ignored, since I was fairly sure he meant I should be fending off “hussies”’ rather than hippies.
No, what reminds me most of Uncle Chic right now is my new bunnet.
I was in a posh gift shop in St Andrews last year. While my long-haired better-half pored over items of dubious aesthetic merit and no intrinsic value, I chanced upon a hat or, more precisely, a kind of flat cap. The label inside said: “Hatman. Pure Donegal Tweed”. I tried it on. It fitted like a glove, if you could wear a glove on your head. I glanced at myself in an over-priced vintage mirror. My Uncle Chic was staring back at me, seemingly just as surprised as I was.
Reader, I bought the hat.
What I remember now is that Uncle Chic never went anywhere without his bunnet. He was living proof of the fact that wearing hats makes you bald – or the statistical probability that baldness increases the propensity to wear hats. In any case, he may have been over-compensating. (According to family legend, when his wife wanted him to stay home of an evening, she simply hid his hat.)
Back then, the idea of taking fashion advice from the previous generation would have been like listening to their views on sex. As a teenager, you didn’t want to hear it. What could these old people possibly know? But, more to the point, what did I know? The cap could have been a style gaffe and contraceptive all in one: wearing it, you would have never got laid.
What surprises me now is that I can put on a bunnet and think “You know what? That looks quite good.” As I walk around the streets of Scotland, it seems more and more blokes have arrived at the same timely conclusion. You see all sorts of chaps – young indy guys, arty types, ageing hipsters, posh fogeys, and some genuine old buffers - sporting the traditional bunnet. Last week, even the Lazarus-like David Bowie has been snapped wearing a flat cap.
But why? And why now?
Modern, post-industrial man has always had a troubled relationship with hats. Back in Elizabethan times, the law laid down the type of hat you had to wear. On Sundays and holidays, every male over 6 years old had to wear a woollen cap – unless you were a nobleman, and then you were allowed to wear a proper hat. In practice, it would have been considered very odd to go around hatless any day of the week. So, the cap was a constant signifier of the lower social orders. And that probably held true until the end of the Second World War.
Plebs wore caps and toffs, when not pushing bicycles and insulting people, wore hats. In the 20th century, nuanced social gradients could be expressed through headwear. The City clerk might signal his place in the pecking order with a bowler; the salesman with a fedora. But the working stiff still wore a cap. Then something changed. By the late 50s, men no longer wanted to wear hats. Perhaps the egalitarian air of the post-war period went to our heads. We had peace, prosperity and the NHS. Then rock ‘n’ roll arrived and which teddy-boy wanted to cover his quiffed barnet with a bunnet?
In the 1960s, so few men were wearing hats that the industry’s trade body ran an ad campaign: if you want to get ahead, get a hat. It’s a great line, but did little to stop ordinary folk from doffing their hats, permanently.
Of course, when no-one wears hats, the individualist may be tempted to make a statement with one. In the early Beatles years, John Lennon was not averse to donning a rather camp sea-dogs cap.
In his later Give Peace a Chance period, he tried a floppy wide-brimmed hat like your mum might wear, ill-advisedly, to a wedding. In Scotland, the Urban Voltaire, aka journalist Jack McLean, could often be seen around Glasgow in a homburg. Myself, I had a brief flirtation with a “gangster hat” in the mid-70s, but it’s a tough look for a teenager to pull off in a small Scottish town.
Since then, we’ve seen 2-tone-era rude boys in pork pie hats and faux mods in trilbies. Sure, the feral youth – keen to avoid his plukes showing up on CCTV – is partial to the baseball cap. But, in terms of cool, nothing has stuck, until now.
It’s a wonder that the bunnet didn’t make a comeback sooner. Style icons such as Grandpa Broon in the Sunday Post and Celtic saviour Fergus McCann were committed to making the cap fit. Grandpa’s bunnet placed the Broons in a never-never-land of Scotland’s recent past. But, in real life, McCann’s no-nonsense headwear also conveyed a subtle but serious message. His straightforwardness bewildered the Scottish press at the time. He said what he meant and meant what he said. Anything else, he kept under his hat. Possibly, that’s a style Charles Green of Ibrox could attempt.
However, you only have to get out your old DVD of the Sergio Leone’s classic Once Upon a Time in America to understand why the cap is making a comeback. Down under Manhattan Bridge, the young wharf rats make a powerful play of their poverty and loyalty: they’re all in this together.
It’s alluring stuff, as David Cameron knows, if slightly less convincing coming from someone who went to a school where the traditional uniform was topped off with a top hat.
With the bunnet, we’re looking at recession chic. It says “I’m an ordinary Joe”. You’re not a banker or an oligarch: you’re a working man, keeping his head down. It doesn’t even have to be particularly true to be revealing. Fashion shows how society feels about itself.
For example, how would you react to Stephen Hester, head of RBS, making his next speech in a bunnet? Or imagine David Cameron talking to the cameras in a flat cap? The vibe would be different. Hester might pull it off, but Cameron would still come over like a landowner ready to shoot a few peasants, sorry, pheasants.
But today in Scotland, all the chaps in caps are not reaching for the past. We’re not channelling Chic Murray or, in my case, my Uncle Chic. We’re looking to the future.
Another couple of years of Etonomics and we may have to put our bunnets on the pavement. We’ll point towards the dustbowl of debt and ideological bankruptcy at Westminster and, to every passerby, bellow: “Buddy, can you spare a dime?”