Hats Off to the Hatter

Been out and about in search of la vraie France once again. Here’s an interview with our local hatter – one of the last (if not the last) in the region. This one appeared in the Connexion back in 2009. For the record, I’m a great hat fan. I have a collection of about 40 of the things. I wear a hat al the time when I go out, but then Bourges is a small town where men still tend to wear hats.

« Get ahead, get a hat »* so the saying goes. This winter more people are « getting ahead » than ever. There is a veritable hat revival. This season’s most essential piece of headgear is the Russian « Chapka ». However, trilbies, fedoras, bérets, even the humble cloth cap, are all enjoying a comeback. Recently, I went to Bourges to meet Stéphane Jacquet**, one of the last true chapeliers in the Region Centre. Stéphane isn’t talking through his hat, il ne parle pas à travers son chapeau, when he says hats have never been old hat.

Are hats back?

They’ve never been away. I think though that hats now appeal to a younger public. Most of my trade used to be with the over-forties. Nowadays though a lot of my customers are in their early twenties. Many have perhaps bought a cheap hat in a chain store, they’ve got the hat bug and they come to me for something a little more authentic and longer lasting. Mind you, France is a very hat-orientated society. Most professions have their own distinctive headgear, such as the Gendarme with his Képi. Even the post office has rehabilitated the emblematic béret for their postmen.

So, what are the current trends?

Well certainly brims, les bords, are getting smaller. Ten years ago brims were far broader, as much as eight or nine centimetres. The current trend is for a six-centimetre brim, a bit like the Trilbies of thirty years ago. The good old cloth cap has also made a welcome return; it is an essential fashion item for many of my younger clients, though the current trend is not for the traditional cap that you might associate with old men or country gentlemen. The casquette branché is the gavroche style, the kind of cap that was popular with young Parisian men-about-town in the nineteen twenties and thirties.

Stephane Jacquet sporting a cloth cap

What about the humble béret?

Another bestseller, but here too, the clientele has changed. There has been a role reversal. The old men who you might have expected to see sporting a béret, are all wearing hats. The Béret has become an essential Bobo fashion accessory. Most béret-wearers nowadays seem to be the bourgeois bohème type. I think they are looking for an authentic and tangible symbol of la France Profonde, or,  la douce France, the cliché from the Charles Trenet song.  The béret is perhaps synonymous of France’s rural past where life was supposedly easier and simpler than today. Of course, the béret is also very popular the English. I always sell quite a few to British tourists passing through Bourges in the summer.

Can you give us a few béret-buying tips?

Well, the first thing to look out for is the size. Not simply the hat size, but the diameter of the béret itself. Both are indicated on the leather band around the outside. A normal béret may have a diameter of twenty-five centimetres, however some bérets, can go over thirty. The more béret you have on top, the bigger the slant, the more you have to pull to one side, or another. There is a popular myth, which says the side to which you choose to slant you béret, left or right, is a sign of your political affiliations. The last two French béret makers are in the Basque country, where the locals also wear the traditional red béret, nothing to do with politics or paratroopers though. The largest bérets are possibly those of the French Alpine troops, les Chasseurs Alpins. To give you some idea of the size, they refer to their béret as a crêpe

We hear so much about production of traditional French products being delocalised, boules for pétanque made in China or foie gras from Hungary. Are bérets still made in France?

About forty years ago, there were thirty béret manufacturers in France, now there are just two. « Blancq-Olibet » near Nay and « Beatex », at Oloron-Sainte-Marie. Both in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques. Blancq-Olibet, have been making bérets for about two hundred years.

You have been « hatting » in Bourges for nearly twenty years. In these hard times, do you think that there is a future in the profession?

Hats are not prone to recession but to the weather. With the recent cold spell, I have been doing a very brisk trade. I think too, that when it comes to hats, people are ready to pay for a long lasting and quality product. A Stetson or a Broswell are not as expensive as you might think, for around eighty Euros, you can purchase a quality item that will last you for years. I have customers who are still wearing hats that they bought ten years ago, and of course if you need it cleaning or reshaping, you can always bring it back to the shop. Hats are here to stay, mind you, they have never been away.

*An advertising slogan in the UK in the 1940s by hat makers Dunn & Co.



The Béret Revival – Why the Béret is so béret popular again

The traditional Béret is enjoying a comeback. Over the last two years, Blancq-Olibet, manufacturers of the distinctive Gallic headgear, based at Nay in the Basque country, have more than doubled their production. They are now churning out 300,000 Bérets a year. The Béret is an international best seller. There are orders from as far afield as Japan. It would seem that in promotional headgear terms, companies are ditching the baseball cap in favour of the French Béret. Just a few years ago, the béret industry was moribund. Strangely enough, the reason for the béret revival may not be French, but Cuban. In 2006, to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Revolution, the Cuban Government ordered 100,000 bérets from Blancq-Olibet.

At Beatax (France’s other béret manufacturer) based in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, chairman Bernard Fargues attriubues the béret revival to several factors. Thanks to the emblematic portrait of a béret-wearing Ché Guevara, the headgear traditionally associated with French paysans, suddenly became a cool and essential fashion accessory with the nation’s youth. Perhaps around the same time, the nation’s Bobos also adopted the béret. A Bobo or Bourgeois Bohème is the term for those young, but affluent city types with a penchant for organic produce and who hanker after the la douce France from their Parisian apartments. The Bobos buy bérets as a sign of authenticity and a link to rural France of days gone by, when they themselves probably had grandparents living and working in the country.

Le p’tit glossaire du chapeau

In France a maker and seller of hats or chapeaux (chapeau in the singular form) is known as a chapelier. Those who create elaborate, David Shilling-style coiffes for ladies are known as modistes. Never say of a hatmaker, il travaille du chapeau, this would mean that he is as mad as a hatter.

There are of course many types of hat. A Trilby or a Fedora in French, is called chapeau mou (soft hat) or feutre, meaning felt hat, referring to the felt-like appearance of the hat once it has been made. Most hats of course are made of rabbit skin, though the Americans make them out of beaver or castor. The French have never been mad on the bowler hat or chapeau melon, though in the sixties, at a loss to find a home-grown name for the Avengers, they called it Chapeau Melon et Bottes de Cuir (Bowler hat and leather boots).

In France various trades or corps de métiers, have their own symbolic headgear. The most well known is perhaps the traditional Gendarme’s hat, le Képi. If you refer to this as le chapeau de Gendarme, you are in fact describing a paper hat as children might make out of your newspaper and don, to play at pirates. In the armed forces, everyone wears a béret, but for official occasions, ladies will wear a coiffe and the men a casquette.

In these recession hit times some people are obliged to hold down two jobs or fulfil several functions at the same time, they wear several hats or in French ils portent plusieurs casquettes. When things at work are not easy and you are forced to carry the can in French you will porter le chapeau. Faced with colleagues, superiors or officials who have no idea what they are talking about you may say, il parle à travers son chapeau or he is talking through his hat. The boss is still the boss though, he who is there to oversee or chapeauter. In job terms though, if you are chapeauter, this can also mean that you benefit from just a spot of  nepotism. No matter, it is the job that counts, and if it is well done, your French colleagues may just take their hats off to you, chapeau bas!