Britons flipping their lids

Hats: Baseball caps are so popular in Britain, even some members of Parliament are sneaking them onto their heads.

March 21, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - A sartorial revolution has occurred in the land where bowler hats and cloth caps once were the national headwear for decades.

Britons have fallen in love with baseball caps.

The hats made famous in America are the only headgear included in the latest retail prices index released yesterday by Britain's Office for National Statistics.

No top hats, no cricket caps, not even bonnets for the royal races at Ascot made the list of 650 goods and services that serve as a theoretical national shopping basket.

The basket, filled with everything from mortgages to health club memberships, tracks prices and serves as a guide for what's in and what's out among British consumers.

Besides baseball caps, items such as salmon fillets, baguettes and organic food are included in this year's list. Old standards like rainbow trout, leeks and ski pants are excluded.

The list is changed annually based in part on surveys from 7,000 households that keep itemized expense lists.

"A lot of kids have been wearing baseball hats," says Ian R. Scott, of the statistics office. "The spending on it has to be significant before we price it. It can't be a passing fad."

Scott admits he has two baseball caps crammed somewhere in a desk drawer. One is a New York Mets hat. The other, well, he can't remember what logo is above the bill.

"Around London, the most likely hat you'll see is a baseball hat," he says. "It has been years since I saw ... a bowler hat."

In Britain, the stereotype held that hats provided a marker of class, with bankers and civil servants wearing bowler hats and carrying umbrellas, while factory workers trudged to plants bearing cloth caps and lunch buckets.

At the central London shop named Bates, where they have been selling hats since 1902, there's still a brisk business for bowler hats, but the bread and butter trade remains Panama hats in the summer and caps and felt hats in the winter.

"We do sell some [$50] baseball hats, but only in tweed," says Tim Boucher, the director of the company. "Most of them go to people over on your side of the world."

So, how did baseball caps become so popular in a country where there are only 10,000 registered players, including those on mixed softball teams?

Clive Russell, director of operations for Major League Baseball for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, says, "The baseball cap has become the must-have cap for the English person. It is a fashion statement, enormously popular. Everyone is wearing it, from Eminem to Posh Spice and [soccer star] David Beckham."

Russell says official New Era major league caps have been marketed in Britain since 1995 and retail from around $30. He says that in the next month some 100,000 caps will reach retail stores in Britain to meet increasing demand.

"It is linked into fashion, which comes from music and sports," he says. "You can't just wear any old baseball cap. Most are wearing New York Yankees hats, Atlanta Braves, Boston Red Sox, the Chicago White Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers."

"We sell hats all across Latin America, Asia, Australia and Europe," he adds. "Everyplace there is a market for sports licensed products, Major League Baseball hats are sold and in demand."

Not everyone looks good in a baseball cap, though. While in America, a politician wouldn't be caught without one, in Britain, it's the opposite, at least in public.

A few years ago, Conservative party leader William Hague showed up in public wearing a baseball cap, and was publicly criticized, drawing little sympathy with an explanation that included, "if it's hot, anybody who is as thin on top as I am wears a baseball cap."

Former Labor leader Neil Kinnock said of Hague's sartorial disaster, "When I saw William Hague put a baseball cap on, even though I've no sympathy for the man, I recoiled for his sake."

Russell, though, says he has seen Prime Minister Tony Blair wearing a baseball cap. "He put one on at a private gathering. It was a Yankees hat."

All this sudden interest in baseball caps is thrilling to the likes of Matthew Gilbert, a gardener who is the ace pitcher for the amateur Cambridge Monarchs team. Last year, the players couldn't scrape together enough money to pay for new team hats, so they all wore red caps of their favorite major league teams.

Gilbert savored the look of the Texas Rangers.

"If you know anyone who could give us a good price, we're looking for 30 hats," he says.

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