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Buying a hat isn’t an everyday experience, and Bates isn’t an everyday shop. Opposite the elegant Piccadilly Arcade on London's Jermyn Street, Bates is the perfect blend of style and tradition. The hats are displayed amid warm wood shelves and glass-fronted cases – and there are hats everywhere. Top hats, flat caps, deerstalkers, fedoras, trilbies, panamas, boaters and angling hats, in all sorts of grades, finishes and fabrics, are here for the trying. Here a person can see themselves in a whole new light. As the staff know all too well: a hat can make the individual.
Way back in the closing years of the 19th century, Edward Bates (pictured left) opened up a hat shop on Sloane Street. In short order, however, he had moved to the centre of the well-dressed gentleman’s world, Jermyn Street in St James’, where it has maintained a presence since 1898. After many years of successful business, Bates moved to Hilditch & Key, and is now settled in its new premises alongside the shirtmaker.
June 1921 was a key moment for Bates, when a kitten strolled into the shop and decided, in that way that cats have, that he had found his home. The staff named him Binks and he charmed everyone he met. When he died the staff couldn’t bear to say goodbye, so he was stuffed, and to this day, Binks presides over the shop from his vantage point under a glass dome. He even has his own Twitter account. Under his watchful eye, the staff advise customers on styles and shapes, measuring heads and ensuring a perfect fit.
A new generation recognises the power of the hat, and Bates has moved with the times. Younger customers prefer a slightly lower crown and a narrower brim – a ‘stingy’ brim to those in the know – as well as that favourite of the off-duty celebrity, the cap. Michael Fassbender, Henry Cavill (pictured left) and David Beckham (pictured shopping with son, Brooklyn, left) have all been photographed sporting their Bates caps with pride.
While adapting to new tastes, Bates hats are created using traditional skills, and the shop is famous for its Panama hats. A proper Panama is made with toquilla palm from Equador and comes in varying degrees of weave. Achieving the finest, tightest weave is a skill so rare that probably only half a dozen people in the world still do it. The very best Panama will take about nine months to make – and Bates can provide it, made to your own specifications of brim, crown, sweatband and ribbon. They will also advise on how to care for your purchase, and they will restore old hats using the traditional methods of steam, brush and blocks.
Of course the absolute Rolls-Royce of hats is the top hat – and Bates can help here too. The history of the silk top hat is disputed (who wouldn’t want to have invented something so preposterously wonderful?). Some say it was invented in France and worn by the incroyables in the 1790s, a group of young aristocrats who responded to the French Revolution by adopting fantastical fashions and modes of address. Its English incarnation was thanks to a Middlesex hatter called George Dunnage, when he first made a form of the hat using silk as “imitation of beaver” in 1793.
More scandalous was the tale of the top hat’s London debut, when a hatter named John Hetherington strolled down St James’, very near the spot where Bates stands today, on 17 February 1797 with ‘a tall and shiny construction on his head that must have terrified nervous people’. It was reported that ‘The sight of this construction was so overstated that various women fainted, children began to cry and dogs started to bark. One child broke his arm among all the jostling.’
Whether true or not, the top hat had certainly made its mark. Today it is most often seen at Ascot, occasionally in its grandest version of silk. Sadly, silk toppers are no longer made; the last hat silk manufacturer closed its doors in the 1960s. However, when Elon Musk, tech entrepreneur, was invited to Ascot, he realised that only a silk topper would do. To whom did he turn? Bates, which offers a range of beautifully refurbished antique and vintage top hats from across Europe.
In short, whether it’s a new look you’re after, something classic and traditional, or a hat that will turn heads, Bates has what you require. For more than 120 years Bates has been the place for a person of style with a taste for adventure.