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Travel: A museum for mad hatters

Stockport preserves the history of ‘the most compelling piece of clothing you can wear’



Few of us remember a time when no self-respecting male would venture out without a hat on his head. Yes, hats were everything — sartorially speaking — until after the First World War, when — or so the theory goes — the introduction of the private automobile lessened the need to keep the head warm.

Through the 1930s, and well into the ’40s, men’s hats enjoyed a reprieve — think Humphrey Bogart and Frank Sinatra, even Harrison Ford in the subsequent Indiana Jones movies — in their soft fedoras with pinched crown and lowered brim.

In the inner city in London, businessmen were still wearing the round-crown black bowler in the 1970s (accompanied by a well-furled umbrella).

Happily, the long-lost craft of men’s hat making is being reprised, or at least explained, at one of the hundreds of thousands of small, mostly under-funded, and often eccentric museums around the world. The Hat Works Museum is located in Stockport, a blue-collar town just outside Manchester in northwestern England.

Manchester and the wider Lancashire region is where the Industrial Revolution began. And from the late 17 th century until 1997, when the last hat-making factory, called Christy’s, closed its doors, Stockport was hat-making central for the United Kingdom.

Hat Works is housed in a seven-storey cotton mill built in 1828 of cast-iron columns and roof trusses, and brick vaults and ceiling cavities filled with sand. With its still-standing 200-foot tapered chimney, the Wellington Mill structure dominates part of the 800-year-old town of Stockport.

In Stockport, men’s hats remain an iconic item. So it was understandable, even justifiable, that museum docent Keith Dansey began our Hat Works tour with a spirited defence of the historic head covering:

“From the moment that you put something on your head, people looked at you in a different light,” he said. “Whether your hat was outlandish… or the height of good taste, it was the most compelling piece of clothing you could wear.”

At the peak of the modern hat-making era that extended from 1860 to the 1930s, 4,500 people where employed at various Stockport factories. Men’s hats by the millions were dispatched “to every corner of the Empire,” Dansey said.

In the bowels of the mill, the atmosphere is dark, dusty and, well, 19 th century-ish. Machinery introduced to hat making around the turn of the last century is everywhere — massive, complicated contraptions that sift and clean fur, then shape, shrink, stiffen and dry the head-wear, and finally bend and trim the brims.