Home  »  » Hats Ahoy!

Hats Ahoy!


Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President Museveni of Uganda
Malawi President Joyce Banda, President Goodluck Jonathan

By Tissa Devendra

A long dormant interest in men’s headgear (wear?) was revived when TV news began displaying the unusual hats worn, as official dress, by quite a few African Heads of State. Nigeria’s, delightfully named President, Goodluck Jonathan is never seen without his tall black felt hat incongruously topping his multicoloured robe. President Museveni of Uganda completes his Savile Row suit with a wide brimmed white hat a la Indiana Jones. The similarly suited President of South Sudan [what’s left of it] sports a tall black cowboy Stetson, seemingly unaware of its symbolism as the trademark of comic strip villains. Their First Ladies, as well as the Lady Presidents of Liberia, Malawi and Mali flaunt colourful and towering creations on their noble heads. South Africa’s leaders long lost any national robes and, as such, we see Mandela’s daughters teetering on high heels, their heads crowned with the dainty little hats beloved of Brit Royalty. On the other side of the Atlantic the Inca women of South America complete their colourful handloom dresses with the ‘English’ bowler hats once as ‘de rigueur’ for London’s gentlemen as their furled umbrellas.

Coming closer home, we in Sri Lanka have had quite a history of head gear. Casually tied turbans were the common man’s head cover. In the days of the Kandyan kingdom, large circular flat-topped hats of white cloth were the dress of minor officials—Aratchis, Korala-mahattayas–and yet remain official dress for those officiating at Dalada and Devala ceremonies. The padded head dress of rich brocade, worn by high-ranking Nilames, seems to be a distant relative of the European tricorne. In my heretical opinion I feel it was designed by the Iberian bred Queen of Kandy Dona Catherina – as there is no pictorial representation of this ‘hat’ before her arrival in the Kandyan Court. Strangely, during the reign of her son Rajasinghe II, that most famous English ‘hostage’ in the kingdom earned his living not only by rearing hogs, but also, by knitting caps for sale to fellow peasants. Many years ago I met an English planter’s wife who roamed the Kandyan countryside searching for any old Knox cap. She had no luck. I wonder what they looked like. I have a hunch they would have been similar to the pointed cloth caps with ear flaps worn by the Thai king’s attendants in period costume on ceremonial occasions.

Many Sinhalese of the ‘low country’, colonized by Europeans since 1505, adopted with alacrity their masters’ names, faiths and elements of costume. Probably the sole remnant of Portuguese influenced headgear is [was?] the long conical ‘helmet’ of the Lascoreen guard that escorted the Maldivian Tribute to the British Governor. The Dutch seemed to have eschewed both miscegenation and encouraging natives to wear Dutch pantaloons and doublets. The Brits, on the other hand, seem to have relished seeing natives in their various travesties and interpretations of tie-coat. Felt hats were popular. ‘Native Chiefs’ such as Mudaliyars were entitled to solar helmets – as worn by the President’s cavalry escort. As time passed the ‘solar topee’ [introduced from India] became the most popular hat – a light flat-topped item in khaki or white. It had a long innings before it gave way to the hatlessness of today. The topee came to be immortalized by cartoonist Collette whose shabby ‘Citizen Per-r-a’ always sported a battered topee.

The variegated headgear of our Muslim compatriots is an interesting study. The one thing in common was that their hats should have no brim so that their forehead could touch the ground when praying.[The top-hatted Aga Khan at Ascot was a tolerated exception] Way back in the 1940s when I was a schoolboy in Kandy, Moor gentleman wore tallish maroon fezzes – as favoured by Sir Razeek Fareed. Humble vendors of eggs and ‘thrombol karayas’ wore neatly knotted handkerchiefs on their heads. The fez was the favoured headgear of the Ottoman Turks admired and copied by their co-religionists here. It now seems to be prevalent only in Morocco. Our Malay men wore ‘songkos’ of batik cloth as their forebears in Java did. This colourful variety seems to have been swamped by the now universal white pill-box cloth caps

I will now deviate towards my own encounters with hats Over seventy years ago, my boyhood self fell down a steep slope on Kandy’s Dharmaraja Hill and fractured my skull on unforgiving stone. After several weeks of convalescence, under the care of young Dr, Daniel de Silva, I was pronounced fit for school. But on two conditions – never to venture out without a hat [to protect my delicate skull] and never to play hardball cricket [for the same reason]. Being thoroughly unsportsmanlike, the latter prohibition gave me a legitimate excuse to avoid playing cricket. But wearing a hat to school meant resigning myself to being a figure of fun and providing a football to my class mates.

Aunty Enid, Mother’s friend in Cross Street, was a hat-maker for the good Catholic Burgher ladies who frequented St. Anthony’s Church round the corner. Fascinated, we watched her snipping buckram, lace, wax flowers and berries and model them on a wooden head. Later, we tried to identify these creations on the ladies walking to church.

My first hat was a round topped felt hat purchased from the little Scout Shop on a corner of Galle Face Green. It was tough enough to withstand years of much battering and monsoon showers. During ceremonial parades I sported a similar hat sporting the black and yellow logo of the Junior Cadet Battalion My proudest headgear, however, was my badge of authority as the Head of the ‘Cross Street Home Fire Brigade’. It was the white steel helmet emblazoned with a large red ‘F’. The Japanese never bombed Kandy, and we left for Nawalapitiya where my mother converted it into a flower pot! A few years later my scout hat found itself in ‘the dustbin of history’ and was replaced by a topee – keeping company with tie/coat gents trudging to work. At long last, after ten years or so, when I moved into Colombo schools I gave up hats for good.

Or so I thought. But hats caught up with me. Another decade or so later I got my first job as a District Land Officer in the Trincomalee Kachcheri. The burning sun called for head cover. Luckily post-war Ceylon was awash with headgear of various shapes and colours. I chose a floppy hat of khaki cloth which did me great service as I trod the sandy wastes and green hills of the many districts I worked in.

Men’s hats in Sri Lanka are no longer a badge of distinction. With some trepidation I venture to suggest that the most popular seem to be the floppy, wide brimmed white hats of our cricketers and the baseball caps of young swingers.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...