LOCK'S OF LONDON: GENTLEMEN'S HATTERS
Published: October 3, 1982 in The New York Times
DOUGLAS SUTHERLAND is the author of some 30 books, including a series on ''The English Gentleman'' and books on espionage. He lives in a castle in Scotland. By DOUGLAS SUTHERLAND
There is no street in London where the ghosts of the 18th century crowd so thickly as St. James's Street. Adjacent Pall Mall may be described as the heart of clubland with its great places standing cheek by jowl, their marbled halls and vast rooms vying with one another in Victorian ostentation, but turn up St. James's Street toward Piccadilly and the elegance of Regency architecture at once asserts itself. The old coffee and chocolate houses once patronized by men of fashion, now clubs like Boodle's, Brooks's and White's, still present their stylish facades to passersby. It was at White's that Beau Brummel once remarked how he liked to sit in the window with his cronies ''watching the damned people getting wet outside.'' Today they are still the most exclusive of all London's clubs.
It is not surprising that it is in St. James's Street that you will find businesses that have served the ''quality'' for 200 years and still quietly carry on their trade unchanged by time. Berry Brothers and Rudd at No. 3 is London's oldest wine merchant, and nearby stands John Lobb where, in the comfortable atmosphere of a good club, one can be fitted for the world's finest footwear at around $340.
Older than either, at 6 St. James's Street, is Lock and Company, the hatters who trace their origins back to 1676 when Robert Davis started the business and whose descendant a generaton later was to be joined both in business and matrimony by a member of the property-owning Lock family. The descendants of this union still control the business.
In an earlier age everyone wore a hat. To be seen outdoors - and on occasion indoors - without one was as unthinkable as taking a stroll along Piccadilly without trousers. By and large anyone who was anyone beat a path to the door of Mr. Lock.
One of Nelson's last acts before setting sail to rejoin the fleet and engage the French and Spanish at Trafalgar was to pick up the cocked hat that he had ordered to be fitted with a special shade to cover his blind eye. He was wearing it when he was killed. (It can be seen on his effigy in Westminster Abbey.)
Ten years later the ''cock't fore and aft,'' which Wellington wore at Waterloo, was made by Lock as were the hats of most of his officers. One of his aides, General Picton, found that his regimental hat gave him a headache so he chose to lead a cavalry charge wearing one of Mr. Lock's toppers.
Some officers not only ordered their own regimental hats from Lock but the headgear for all their troops as well. In the records is an order from General Grosvenor not only for ''7 gents regimental hats with accessories'' at a cost of 63, but also special hats for all other ranks from staff sergeants down to ''765 privates caps complete with plumes.''
If Nelson or Wellington were to walk into Locks today, they would find little changed. The shop still has its original Regency paneling, and the coffined staircase still gives access to the upper floors. (Coffined staircases were designed so that a coffin could be lowered down the well of the staircase where the sharp angle of the stairs themselves made the operation impossible.) Customers have access to the second floor, where there is a selection of tweed hats. Above that floor are company offices.
Lock's has always maintained a tradition of catering to the special needs of its customers rather than making an attempt to dictate fashion. Thus it was that when in 1850 one of the Cokes of the Earl of Leicester's family came into Lock's for a low-crowned hard hat for hunting, one less likely to be knocked off by low branches than the traditiional high-crowned beaver hat, Mr. Lock 3d readily obliged. (With typical British eccentricity the Earls of Leicester do not come from Leicester but from Norfolk, and the family name of Coke is pronounced Cook.)
Because Lock's is not a manufacturer the company contracted the task out to the firm of Thomas and William Bowler, whereupon the bowler hat, later to be adopted as part of the uniform of the City, was born. Lock's still refers to its hard hats as Coke hats and likes it when customers get the pronounciation right. The Bowler firm later started selling the Coke invention under its own name.
Although the Coke or bowler is in decline, the range of Lock hats has a remarkably cosmopolitan look. There are tweed hats and caps, deerstalkers, polo caps, Panama hats, homburgs, Tyrol hats and Chelsea hats (presumably for hunting nearer home).
Perhaps the most significant change in the long history of the firm is the steady development of its trade with America, which started in 1781 when James Lock provided a ''fine beaver hat'' for a Mr. Mallet of New York. Over the last century trade with America has increased dramatically; today America is the largest export outlet, and one out of every four customers who walk into Lock's in London are from America.
Over the years many of America's richest and most distinguished people have called regularly to have their hats fitted: the Rockefellers, the Mellons, Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who once had a flat above the premises.
Lock's present managing director, Richard Bruce Geden Stephenson, has a particular affection for America, which he visits every year, having forged strong links with stores like Brooks Brothers. Locks also supplies velvet hunting caps and polo hats to specialty stores, mostly on the West Coast.
There is little variation in the price of a Lock hat in the United States or Britain. A polo cap or hunting hard hat is about $145; golfing or shooting tweed caps are about $25, and a lightweight Coke hat is about $75.Ready-made felts range from about $45 to $75, and one can be custom made for about $9 more.
For those who want a custom-made tweed hat, Lock's does not supply the fabric but will fashion a hat from a customer's material for about $36.
Lock's is open from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. Monday to Friday and from 9.30 A.M. to 12.30 P.M. on Saturday.
Assistant Manager Jayesh Vaghela wears a bowler hat at Lock & Co. Hatters on March 22, 2011 in London, England. Founded in St.James's in 1676, when Charles II was on the throne, this family owned business has provided hats for Royalty and the gentry for over 300 years. Staff report that sales of formal hats are booming ahead of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in Westminster Abbey on April 29, 2011.