In the middle of the 20th century, Britons stopped wearing hats. Cars with little headroom converged with rebellious youth culture to topple the formerly behemoth British tradition of men and women adorning their heads whenever they left the house. Women, in particular, quickly transitioned from using headgear to signal their social status to rarely wearing hats at all. It was just before and during this era when David Cale’s family members made their living in women’s hats in Luton, England, making a small fortune in the final years before the longstanding industry shrank. Luton had long been a center for hat making.
In the 1600s, when people in the area learned the art of straw-plaiting, the town became known for both its plaiters and hatters. Children as young as three years old attended “plaiting schools,” which more closely resembled workhouses than educational establishments; they labored as much as 10 hours each day to produce straw plaits for their parents to sell. A 10-year-old, having already practiced their skills for several years, might be expected to produce 30 yards per day. During the 1700s, straw hats surged in popularity, and Luton’s output grew accordingly; however, their hats were coarser than those imported from continental Europe, and therefore Luton served the lower end of the market. When the Industrial Revolution swept across England in the 19th century, Luton’s hat industry was transformed: both child plaiters and hat molders were replaced by machines. By 1900, the city’s streets were lined with factories, warehouses and ancillary business that produced hat boxes and ribbons. Young women streamed in from outlying areas to work at the factories, which provided better pay and working conditions than many jobs accessible to females.
Fashion changed in the first years of the 20th century, and felt hats grew in popularity. Luton adapted, and by 1939 the majority of hats made in Luton were felt. And while they had previously sent their hats to other locations for trimming, Luton now attempted to develop a designing reputation, in addition to hat manufacturing. But the town’s success was limited and short lived. By the final decades of the century, many factories and warehouses had been demolished, or converted into office buildings or apartments.