The watch cap. The knit cap. The skullcap. The beanie. Whatever the name you choose, tracking down the history of this now-ubiquitous piece of headgear may prove frustrating. Every cold part of the world that needed to keep their ears and head warm while at work and play invented some variant of the watch cap.
The history may not be straightforward, but everyone knows the end of this story. This cap becomes one of the most worn and (as editor, David Shuck reminded me) frequently lost accessories in the modern wardrobe.
In the Beginning…
A fair number of sources believe the history of the knit cap began in Monmouth in Wales in the mid 1500s. However, other sources believe the invention of the pom-pom was a sign of cap-making in Norway that pre-dated the invention of knitting and therefore the Monmouth Cap.
But like the various famous sweaters in our Ugly Christmas Sweater article, it is quite possible that both these cold regions developed their own logical answer to their environment. A snug-fitting warm cap to keep out the elements. If one is to believe the cap originated in either Great Britain or Scandinavia, it makes sense that it would be associated with durable, practical workwear. But could the answer be buried even further in the past?
The Phrygian Cap has its origins in the Hellenistic period and would come to be worn by freed slaves in ancient Rome. The powerful classical symbolism inherent in this rather silly hat would not be lost on history and in the late 1600s, they would be called “bonnets rouges” and worn by revolutionaries in an early anti-nobility revolt that served as a precursor to the French Revolution. But despite the fact that various versions of the knit cap existed throughout Europe, it would be the great colonial powers: France and England who would export their favorite designs to the world.
The United States Capitol Rotunda features a “liberty cap” on the head of a woman on George Washington’s right in “The Apotheosis of George Washington.” American artist Thomas U. Davis tried many times to include liberty caps throughout the famous works of art in the American capitol, but he was often denied.
The cap’s association with freeing Roman slaves was too radical in pre-Civil War America and other critics thought the cap might too closely resemble Native American headwear to be acceptable in the Capitol. Nearly a hundred years after America’s founding, the caps from the first European settlers remained controversial symbols of liberty.
The Military Connection
Although the knit cap is an incredibly ancient item of clothing, its military connection was indelibly forged in the 1830s and 50s with several very cold and violent conflicts. The first was the Lower Canada Rebellion, which was fought between French-Canadian patriots and the British Colonial Powers. Fought in desperately cold conditions, the knit cap would serve a twofold purpose: survival and symbolism. The Québecois patriots adopted the already-famous bonnet rouge as part of their uniform. In French-Canadian, the caps would be called Tuques.
The 1854 battle of Balaclava allegedly gives us another important link between the knit cap and the military. Part of the siege of Sevastopol, which was in turn a part of the Crimean War, these caps were apparently given to British soldiers in order to keep them protected from the cold.
Although it may be sloppy history to jump all the way from the Crimean War to World War II, it may be helpful in terms of fashion. After all, the great majority of knit caps we now see are marketed as “watch caps,” have a clear link back to the caps worn by Navy crews during World War II. An absolutely incredible set of photos by Life Magazine captures a submarine crew while stationed somewhere bleak and cold in the 1940s.
These pictures not only show the watch cap out in the wild, so to speak, but worn often as they are worn today. Usually made from a dark wool and worn rolled up above the ears. Wearing your beanie high on your head or at a jaunty angle isn’t a modern hipster invention, but a long-standing tradition.
Watch Caps in Pop Culture
Famous undersea explorer (and Jack Donaghy’s personal hero), Jacques Cousteau could often be seen in a watch cap throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. Despite his history in the French Navy, he wears not a somber military color, but a bright orange-y red, almost reminiscent of the Phrygian Caps of the French revolution. Regardless of intent, Cousteau further cements the cap’s connection with exploration and adventure.
Among these warriors and adventurers we must also add Michael Nesmith of the The Monkees, who was often seen wearing a beanie with a pom-pom on top. In the two years the band was on TV, from 1966-1968, the watch caps worn by Nesmith served as proof that the hard-wearing hat was no longer just for adventures on the high seas, but could just as easily be worn by any and all.
Featured Watch Caps
Buzz Rickson x William Gibson Wool Watch Cap
While our watch caps so far discussed have been primarily worn at sea, things could get just as cold (if not colder) in the sky. The military reproducers par excellence at Buzz Rickson have recreated the watch cap worn by the members of the USAAF during WWII. This particular hat was so beloved that paratroopers often traded their own gear in order to snag this particular extra-warm cap.
Available for $100 from Self Edge.
Real McCoy’s WWI Watch Cap
This 100% wool cap is apparently one of the most requested items from The Real McCoy’s. It’s made in Japan from black wool and is authentic to watch caps used by the U.S. military during the First World War.
Available for $84 from Super Denim.
Columbiaknit Knitted Cap
A made-in-the-USA and affordable option comes from Columbiaknit of Portland, Oregon. Their 100% cotton beanies may not be as historically accurate on the others on this list, but they sure look cozy and their price cannot be beaten.
Available for $14 from Columbiaknit.