LOCK & COMPANY
What is the easiest way of changing one’s outdoor appearance? Buy a hat. I did it as an undergraduate in Cambridge (it was a homburg, and caused me to be described in the pages of the Spectator as “a pale imitation of Enoch Powell”) and I have just done it again. And where does one go to buy a hat? To Lock’s, of course.
The firm of James Lock & Company was founded in 1676 and therefore can claim to have acquired a decent measure of experience in the provision of headgear. It now resides at number six St James’s Street, handily close to a number of London’s more civilized destinations. So a pleasant morning can be had, buying a couple of paintings at a Christie’s auction, being measured for some shirts in Jermyn street, selecting a hat at Lock’s and then toddling off to the Ritz for lunch.
Still owned and run by descendants of Mr Lock and of his business partner, the shop is narrow, long and has a properly old-fashioned atmosphere. In the corner is a handsome long case clock. Do not overlook it, for it is an important timepiece – important enough, indeed, to be the subject of an article in Antiquarian Horology. Its top dial allows you to calculate the time of sunrise and sunset on any day of the year – although it is always 10 days early, having been made before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in England in 1752. Looking closely, I spied the words ‘No real night’. What on earth did they mean? Well, it seems that there is a period between May and July in England during which the sun does not sink low enough below the horizon to be classified, astronomically, as night. Remarkable.
As is the list of Lock’s customers. The warrants of the Duke of Edinburgh and his son hang on the walls. Of other current customers the firm is discreet, but past notables such as Lord Nelson, Charlie Chaplin, General de Gaulle, Oscar Wilde, Beau Brummel, Laurence Olivier and the Duke of Wellington all covered their heads the Lock’s way. (One of the Iron Duke’s swan-feathered hats can still be seen in the shop, an impressive tribute to the longevity of the firm’s products.) And customers occasionally contribute more than their distinction. Sometimes hats are named after those for whom they were first made. Thus the Coke. The Coke? Yes, long before the American fizzy drink, Mr William Coke asked Lock’s to make a hard, rounded hat for his gamekeepers. Thus was born what people outside the world of Lock’s know as the bowler hat – made of muslin, stiffened with shellac.
For such stiff hats, the fit is critical. I decided to be measured. Thus was I introduced to the Conformateur. Onto my head was lowered the heavy machine. It reminded me of those devices in the science fiction films of my youth which were used for robbing victims of their minds. But here it was made of ebony and mother of pearl, so I felt quite safe. The card template made by the Conformateur was then introduced into another machine, which produced a block to the exact size of my head. A hat was heated and moulded onto the block. And there it was: my very own customized Coke hat.
As a bespoke tailor stores your paper pattern and a shoe maker preserves your very own last, so the hat maker files away the templates made by the Conformateur – dated, because head shapes do change over time. At Lock’s some have been mounted in a frame – including those of the Princess of Wales, Field Marshall Montgomery and the absent peer, Lord Lucan. Mine will be tucked away, awaiting my next visit. For this time I decided against the Coke. I looked at the tweed caps and the panamas and the velvet smoking caps and the leather driving helmets. But, in the end, I went for one of the marvellously stylish felt hats. (At this level of excellence, the felt is made of rabbit hair.)
I did look at an Australian concoction, complete with crocodile teeth (from farmed animals, I was assured by the charming Marketing Manager, Janet Taylor), but decided it might not be quite what I wanted. So I settled on a navy blue Chelsea, lined in white silk with a medium to wide brim and two front dents. A perfect fit: not touching the ears, sitting medium forehead and gripping without any unpleasant tightness. (If you look into the hat and can read the label, it is the right way round for putting straight onto your head. If in doubt, the little bow inside is always at the back of the head.)
Before I left, the hat was whisked upstairs for my initials to be stamped in gold onto the inside leather band. The price? £150 (the Coke is £205). This was a real bargain, given the quality of the hat and the excellence of the service I had received. Fancy, being able to look a new man for just £150.