Friday, 3 October 2008

Buying my Straw Boater

I’m posting this up because, since I bought my Boater a few months ago, I’ve been asked a few times (once by a friend of mine in the USA) exactly where I bought it and where could They get one? I got a little tired of recounting the long, convoluted, sometimes funny, story so I thought I’d lay it down here. Here goes…

It was early June, coming on Summer; I’d quit the cigarettes a month ago and realised I was saving almost £50 a week (that’s almost £200 a month) and decided to commemorate and buy myself a new Boater.

Let’s start with a little-known fact: every Straw Boater manufactured in the UK is made by a company called Olney Headwear of Luton (01582 731512) - I found this out some fifteen years ago when I was researching/writing/presenting a series of TV shorts called “The A-Z of the Well-Dressed Gentleman” for London Weekend Television.

Trouble is, Olney’s do Not retail their hats, they only wholesale to other retailers (boaters for about £35-40, I’d estimate). So I looked at some retailers:

My first port of call on most headwear matters: James Lock & Co. of St. James’s Street (020 7930 8874). Their retail price for a boater was £109; OK, so this includes a free hat box worth £30, so the hat sort-of worked out at £79.

I went round the corner into Jermyn Street, to Bates - a strangely thin and long shop bathed in semi-darkness. Out of the darkness emerged this strange Dickensian figure. I suddenly had visions of the UK comedy programme The League of Gentlemen and half-expected to hear the words “this is a local shop for local people”. But I gathered my courage and asked for a Boater (price £62, minus hatbox, which would have cost an extra £19; Total £81.00). Great! I was ready to buy.

So I told him my hat size [UK 6 7/8s; 56 cms.; 22 inches, for the record, should anybody wish to send me a present] which, apparently, is a little smaller than average. He disappeared into the back of the shop…

There was a pause. From the darkness I heard an “Ah…”. He came back into the half-light of the shop, empty handed and said “I’m afraid we don’t have your size, sir”. (Odd, I thought, but hey-ho, it happens).

“So when will you have them back in stock?”, I enquired: expectant, optimistic. And then came the reply: “Not till next year”.

Back out on the street I was torn between thinking “what a way to run a business” and “typical bloody Britain…if this’d been America…” and “well, what do I do now?”.

And so I fled to the internet and I finally came across a place called Ascot Tophats ( in, guess where?: Ascot. It’s an impressive website. So I duly telephoned them (08709 192820) and eventually the call was answered by what sounded like a sweet little old granny - well, it was a Saturday.

We had a somewhat odd conversation, including the immortal line “could you phone us again later…after 6pm…when someone will be here”. Eventually we agreed that they would phone me back. What could I say but agree!

I began to wonder what I’d got myself into, and started to have visions of this so-called company with the impressive website being some kind of part-time “back bedroom” operation.

So when the call was returned, it was the little old lady again. She confirmed they had my size in stock, confirmed a price of £49.95 + £10 postage (guaranteed next day delivery / mailing out on Monday). I asked them for a hatbox too - their website claimed they could sell you a Christys' hatbox, but then she said, "We haven’t got any in that size in stock at the moment”.

I felt this was becoming an increasingly uphill struggle, but I persevered. By now I just didn’t care; as long as my boater arrived in pristine condition, the rest I could fix somehow. And so we entered the next phase…

Have you ever tried to give your card details over the phone to a sweet, little old lady with (it was becoming increasing clear) failing hearing? I shall skip over that, but you can imagine…

Anyway, Monday morning, a younger chap from Ascot Tophats phoned me up, enthusiastic, helpful, and confirmed all the details. He also mentioned it was an Olney boater (with the distinctive black silk band) and that it would be with me tomorrow.

Tuesday, and a delivery from Parcelforce. My boater: well-packaged and sturdily-boxed, in pristine condition and a perfect fit. Believe me, the brim is so rigid and sharp it’ll poke someone’s eyes out - exactly as it should be. Total cost £59.95.

And I’ve been wearing it ever since throughout (what passes for) a British Summer. But it was all rather a bizarre tale of trial-and-error. I later bought a hatbox from James Lock & Co. (£30) …….I guess Bates are still waiting for next year’s delivery.

[For what it’s worth I did track down an American website that supplies Boaters (also called Skimmers in the States) for $49.95: - I may be wrong, but those ones look to me to be of a much softer construction, like a Panama straw hat. Or you might try which, for $95, has a firmer straw boater (it looks like to me). Both Boaters / Skimmers come with a red and black hatband (rather spiffing actually). Sorry, I could not grab pics from their sites.

Also note that US hat sizes are one size up from the UK; hence, a UK 6 7/8s size will be a US 7]].


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Anonymous said...

Thanks for that, Ray: was looking for a boater for a wedding in August, was intending to pay a visit to Lock but after reading your blog I'll just walk the half mile to Ascot Tophats - I'll give the little old lady your regards!
Ain't the internet a wunderful fing!

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