All the old shibboleths, observed 20 years ago by Professor Ross and Nancy Mitford, remain in force. These are linguistic traps designed to ensnare the impostor who is likely to give him or herself away by saying toilet for lavatory, serviette for napkin, and pleased-to-meet-you for how-do-you-do.
And suddenly the hat is back. The Panama is de rigeur at the Test matches, and hats of extravagance fill the screen on these delightful journeys of nostalgic diversion, Poirot and Wooster. Why the hat was dropped from the normal attire of men has never quite been clear. It happened, I think, in the fifties. Perhaps it was a rejection of the hat as a badge of class.
Its disappearance was almost complete, though it of course survived in certain specific settings. It was, and still is, worn at weddings, usually on hire. It is still much seen at the races, and is part of the uniform of the stewards, that bucolic and strangely red-faced breed, with gin-tinged voices, to whom the excellence of their suits and coats clearly matters as much as their dram.
For a time black jazz musicians wore caps, to signify, I think, that they were working men and nobody’s performing apes. Old pictures show that Red Clydesiders wore bonnets with similar pride.
A few people remained faithful to the hat through the barbarian years. Our own Urban Voltaire has graduated from the bunnet to hats of splendour; he, of course, lives with a theatrical sense, as if he is in a movie. But more often the male hat has been hijacked by women as a fashion accessory.
In such programmes as Poirot and Wooster, the hat is used as a symbol of the twenties, an age of innovative and unsurpassed elegance. Much as I enjoy these diversions, I am troubled by the social solecisms which litter them. I came to adulthood just as the age of the hat was passing. At my school it was compulsory to wear a cap in the street and I was once beaten for failing to do so.
My father often wore a hat and I was aware of the etiquette governing its use and the eloquence of its language. Hats had to be lifted or removed as the occasion demanded. The failure to doff them could be a measured rebuke. Dr Johnson wrote cynically of a contemporary:
”I am afraid he has not been in the inside of a church for many years; but he never passes a church without pulling off his hat. This shows that he has good principles.”
Wooster and Poirot’s Watson, Major Hastings, wear their hats with an incredible lack of correctness that negates the close attention otherwise paid to period detail. In the snobberies of the Agatha Christie books, it would of course not be unexpected for Poirot himself to commit some breach, for he is a foreigner.
In the English mind of classic cast, abroad, as Nancy Mitford wrote, is utterly bloody and foreigners are fiends (a sentiment that seemed alive in the House of Lords this week). And the plodding Inspector Japp, being of the lower orders, would also not be expected to know the rules, just as he may be relied upon to misinterpret the evidence. The joke at the core of Wooster and Jeeves is the converse: Jeeves’s superior intelligence does not alter his social inferiority, and he knows it.
But Wooster and Hastings would never wear a hat indoors, as they so frequently do on film; or when being introduced to someone; or when talking to a lady or even to a gentleman; or when in a lift.
Perhaps therein lies the real explanation of why, in the egalitarian post-war age, the hat fell out of use. Its rules, like the shibboleths, were an obstacle course.
About the same time as the hat disappeared men stopped giving up their seats to women in buses, or rising when they entered a room, or letting them go through doors first. This general gracelessness was encouraged by a feminism which sought no such favours and, indeed, found them patronising and insulting.
Betjeman used hatlessness to convey a loss of continuity and traditional values as bungaloid blight spread across a green landscape:
Old men who never cheated, never doubted,
Communicated monthly, sit and stare
At the new suburb stretched beyond the run-way
Where a young man lands hatless from the air.
The hat went but the snobberies survived. They are more complex in England than in Scotland where there is a tradition not of egalitarianism but of social harmony. The laird would talk to the tinker. According to Walter Scott, he would often sup with the servants too. But that was as far as it went and he would look down on lesser neighbours. Again according to Scott, there was no more socially jealous creature than the Highland clan chief.
The bonnet or petty lairdie did not wear the hat of the true gentry but ”strutted about like a hunting cock”. That old put-down, recorded in the Scottish National Dictionary, brings to mind a contemporary Scottish MP of habitually gorgeous attire who bought his own barony, Sir Nicholas Fairbairn of Fordell. As Gerald Scarfe reminded us, Mr Major’s classless society is proving elusive.