Sunday 2 February 2014

Topping It All Off

“A hat should be taken off when you greet a lady and left off for the rest of your life. Nothing looks more stupid than a hat.” – P. J. O’Rourke

[A few years worth of head coverings] 

If you dont know your trilby from your fedora; your boater from your bowler, youre not alone. Hats have always been something of a mystery to me and to many of my peers, especially men.

For centuries hats were an essential article of dress, and that certainly continued till my fathers day. I wince to recall my own teenage angst as I travelled on a train with my hat-wearing father. I felt embarrassed certainly, but it was made worse by my feelings of disloyalty. No-one else wore hats anymore, so why did he have to? And he even doffed them when greeting a woman!

Decades passed, my father retired, and took to wearing a cloth cap or a grandpa-style sun hat. He also had a few skin cancers removed. “Slip-Slop-Slap” arrived, and hats made a comeback. I grew up, moved to Tasmania, and became very aware of the need to wear a hat. And particularly when I was out of doors doing what I loved: bushwalking.

So began the long, slow and as yet unfinished search for the perfect bushwalking hat. Consider the list of requirements. It should protect you from the sun while being lightweight, comfortable, durable, breathable, water-resistant, and good to look at. I hesitate saying "fashionable" for that last requirement, as I've long since discarded the idea that you can look fashionable while slogging and sweating up a hill, swishing at flies and grumping about the weather, the slope, the heat, the cold, the rain, the snow, the visibility ... you get the picture. Still, there's no reason your headgear should actively frighten anyone.

I began with a classic, a woollen tam o'shanter, as worn in dreich Scottish weather. It fitted right in with my Scottish heritage, and with any dreich weather I met while walking. But it wasn't strong on sun protection, and was too hot for our better-than-Scottish summer weather. It also itched like a midge-bitten highlander! I now bring it out only on ceremonial occasions. 

[Sporting a tam o'shanter, and carrying a bairn in the 1980s] 

Next came a couple of Aussie classics. First was a Drizabone felt hat, which started off looking awfully prissy until I'd squished it into my pack a few dozen times. Lynne then added a chin-strap for me, and I had a good few years of wear from it. But its advantage (it was made from the fur of feral pests) also became its disadvantage (it was made from the fur of feral pests). After its umpteenth soaking with rain, that rabbit fur eventually shrank, and the hat with it.

Next came an Akubra "Territorian". It was made for the tropics, and was inclined to become a kite in Tassie's not infrequent wind squalls. Cleverly Akubra came up with its own Tasmanian adaptation, adding a thonged leather chin-strap. It was good, but rather stiff looking, and a little too heavy for my liking. I now bring it out only on ceremonial occasions.

A few trips to New Zealand convinced me that I might add one more requisite to my hat wish-list. Could a hat also help protect you from sandflies? My mates Jim and Tim joined me in buying a hybrid cap known as the "Kalahari". While its apex looked like that of a baseball cap, its flanks drooped over our ears and neck like a legionnaire's hat, but could also be worn shorter. It worked a treat against both sun and sandflies, and kept us cool to boot. However its wet weather performance was dismal, as it soon felt as though you were wearing a wet towel.

[The adaptable "Kalahari": a good hot weather option]

While tramping in New Zealand we came across a couple of young Spanish walkers who wore what looked like a hijab (a type of veil worn by some Muslims). But they explained that it was widely used outside Islam, and that they used it for both warmth and cooling, and for sun and sandfly protection. Essentially just a large rectangle of fine merino wool, the trick was in the folding. They demonstrated it and allowed me to try one on. I was surprised at how cool and non-itchy it was, and how comfortable it felt.

That got me thinking about superfine merino (ironically Spanish in origin, but perfected by the Kiwis), and before long I had settled on an Icebreaker merino beanie as my preferred cool weather hat. It remains my go-to in cool, wet or windy weather.

There still remained the need for a head covering that would function in both sunny and wet weather. Gore-tex reared its promising head, although I had been suckered by its sweet talk before. Waterproof, breathable, broad brimmed, comfortable: Sea to Summit's "Java" is my latest try-out. It's showing promise, 'though it must be said that in the "good to look at" stakes, questions are still being asked. 

[Me trying out the "Java" in Switzerland, while Lynne wears a jaunty cap] 

Perhaps it comes down to whether I'm willing to take this advice from Neil Gaiman.

“Some hats can only be worn if you're willing to be jaunty, to set them at an angle and to walk beneath them with a spring in your stride as if you're only a step away from dancing. They demand a lot of you.”

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