10 DECEMBER 1948, Page 10



IN the days when plumes and feathers were not considered effeminate, and when a generous and flexible brim gave scope for the expression of personality, the hat was man's crowning glory. The silken topper, flattering and full of dignity, was never that. Both have gone ; the frivolous boater has joined them ; and man is left with the choice of the funereal bowler, the undistinguished trilby and the plebeian cloth cap. For far too many years the male head has suffered eclipse, while trunk and limbs have ruffled it in Oxford bags, plus-fours, political shirtings, and in d.b. and s.b. jackets. Min appears to be adopting an attitude of dogged conservatism, resisting even the onslaughts of the No Hat Brigade, and recoiling in horror from the behaviour of Eve, who from month to month ecstatically sees her hats range from the fantastic to the ridiculous, from the incomprehensible to the utterly inconceivable. Attempts have been made to arouse interest in what should be the supreme article of attire. The late Lord Northcliffe championed the Sandringham ; Mr. Winston Churchill might be regarded as the advocate of a cheerful diversity, while Field-Marshal Montgomery advertises the presence in every recruit's knapsack of a beret with two badges. All have failed ; man has remained unresponsive, and the recruits today would prefer a packet of twenty cigarettes in their knapsacks to any Amber of ,i-badged berets.

It seemed as though masculine hat styles had become fixed and Atanseless, and the gloom pf monotony had almost overwhelmed the hat world when suddenly a gleam appeared on the dark horizon. Away to the East a -headgear revolution is it progress. It began mysteriously, matured imperceptibly, and now remorselessly affects the lives of millions just realising for the first time what is taking place. The fact is, in brief, that the topee is going out. Now this is a staggering departure, for the topee was no mere whim of an in- genious designer ; it is a form of wear dictated -by circumstances and rendered vitally necessary (so it was thought) by the harshness with which the tropical sun beats down upon the European cranium. The circumstances are unchanged. Temperatures and tempers still soar. Mad dogs and Englishmen continue to go out in the midday sun, and in the Malay States such persons as have not joined Communist bands or local defen& organisations no doubt continue to wear hats like plates. How, then, has it suddenly become possible to end the long reign of the topee ?

No one knows. It is not so very many years ago that spine pads were obligatory in many stations, and white troops were known to drop dead after an injudicious glass of beer. Yet in the last years of the late war British soldiers were to be seen in these same death traps stripped to the waist, not only without spine pads, but—oh horror l—with the protective topee replaced by the ludicrously inadequate beret. - The beret was not the only new head-covering to gain some sort of official sanction. The Americans were evidently disciples of Mr. Churchill, for they crowned themselves with a variety of curiosities, hats and caps that appeared to derive from those worn by babies, Postmen, engine-drivers, baseball-players and night editors in films. Then there was the large felt hit of the Burma campaign, copied from the Australian original, and copied badly. Latterly there came the lightweight hat of cotton or linen, descended from the colmnon trilby, and it is this that appears to have come to stay, for it is worn not only by such crude persons as planters and engineers, but even by the old " Ita' hais " of the Bengal Club. And now—final seal of approval—the War Office, ever ready to make a circumspect move within a few years of the times, has been informed by MI5 of the great new movement that is sweeping like unwanted propaganda through the plantations, the secretariats, the bazaars and the clubs of the Orient.

Quite recently we learnt that troops being despatched to Malaya were not being issued with the familiar topees, but with a new soft hat, and at once the question arises : What of the topee industry ? Already the merchants and manufacturers of Bombay and Calcutta are wailing the ritual death-chant of the hatter, for they have waxed fat for • years on the annual sales to the man in the street and the quartermaster in his store. Furthermore, what of the thousands (or millions) of topees constructed in Britain and issued during the war to troops going overseas (partly, of course, for security reasons, to make them think they were sailing for Norway), and never seen again? They were peculiar pieces of furniture, those British topees. They were very tall, like policemen's helmets, and surmounted by a flat button to which, it was believed, a shiny spike could be affixed. In front the brim came to a point, and aft it broadened mightily to a spatulate tongue, 'so that the general effect was that of an inverted coal-scuttle. The inside, like the clouds, had a silver lining. They made the unfortunate wearers look like Hollywood versions of missionaries of the 'eighties. "Mr. Livingstone, I presume," sprang naturally to the lips when one beheld an acquaintance beneath one of these quaint coverings. Their possessors, after a voyage in happy ignorance, learnt the truth as soon as they had landed at their eastern destinations and saw the very different style favoured by both civilians and services, and they lost no time in hastening, red of face, to the nearest quartermaster's store and effecting an exchange. As the years dragged on stores and ordnance depots must have been clogged and bulging with returned British-issue topees, for certain it is that of all that went east of Suez only an inexpressible fraction ever saw more than a few days' service.

In the clubs, where conversation is abreast of all the latest develop- ments, it is said with confidence that the immense -quantities of discarded topees were secretly flown to Bikini Atoll. The forthright and cynical inhabitants of the gardens and plantations firmly believe that they were removed from India in 1945-46 a thousand tons at a time in H.M, transports, a theory plausibly accounting for the very

exasperating shortage of passenger accommodation at that time, and dumped at sea off Portugal, where they now in all probability adorn the pop-eyed Blimps of some damp Atlantis. In the bazaars the reigning rumour has it that they were buried deeply in a great pit somewhere in South India, where: "Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid Some hat once pregnant with celestial fire." Syndicates of Marwaris are said to have been purchasing surplus mine-detectors and sending out expeditions to locate this topee Golconda with the object of salving the silver lining5. The truth is that the truth will never be known. The War Office has its faults, but it can keep its darker secrets.

Soon the trumpets will sound when the tepee goes to join its fathers, the tricorne, the topper and the boater. Once upon a time it was a symbol of romance to youth aspiring to an outpost-of-empire existence, much more so than chota pegs, punkahs, bearers and white mess kit. Nowadays youth probably aspires more to free medical attention and a pension at sixty-five. The topee will be seen only in museums, and an odd one gathering dust in a boxroom will arouse the inquisitiveness of children. Unemployment statistics will show for a time a few hundreds under the heading "Helmet (pith) maker," until they are rehabilitated and taught to make wicker baskets. And the bronzed, strong-jawed empire-builder of the well-known tobacco advertisement (" G.H.J.K.—, Jualabongolo, Tanganyika, writes ...") will have to smoke his pipe and shade his steely eyes as best he can beneath the paltry brim of a floppy cotton hat. He, poor fellow, will be the greatest sufferer of all.