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The Remarkable History of the Wool Knit Cap

From Davey Crockett’s coonskin cap to the timeless felt fedora, history has had its fair share of iconic headgear. However, when it comes to hats with a long, rich history, the simple knit cap is in a class of its own. Whether you call it a tuque, a Monmouth cap, or just a plain beanie, there’s an incredible story behind this cold-weather staple.

Like so many historic icons, the knit cap can be traced back to a quiet corner of Medieval England. The first examples originated from the wool-rich town of Monmouth, in the early 14th century, and the style quickly gained popularity for its warmth and simple construction.

Monmouth Caps

By the 16th century, “Monmouth caps” had become standard apparel for soldiers, sailors, and everyday laborers. In fact, the hats became so wildly popular (and so essential to the British wool industry) that in 1571, Queen Elizabeth passed an edict demanding that all common menfolk wear a wool hat on Sunday, or face a potential fine. From that point onward, the cap’s influence knew no bounds: It was mentioned in Shakespeare’s Henry V, and counted among the supplies for the Jamestown expedition. In time, this first iteration (and its legal counterpart), would eventually die out, but not before British explorers had carried their winter headgear to every corner of the globe.

Famously, one such place was the frigid British colony of Canada. The redesigned Monmouth cap, now called a tuque, was a perfect fit for the region’s bitter winters, and it became a constant companion for the colony’s trappers and lumberjacks. It even took a turn as a revolutionary icon during the Patriots Wars of 1837, when Canadian rebels adopted a red woolen tuque as a play on the French Revolution’s Phrygian cap, which was ill suited for winter warfare. In the end, the rebellion was unsuccessful, but it did lead to a unified Canadian territory, and the tuque has remained a symbol of Canadian nationalism ever since.

Canadian Battle

By the start of the 20th century, popular fashion had begun to shift, and the knit cap regained its popularity with blue-collar workers, who sought a sleek, functional hat that could hold back their hair without obstructing their vision. This utilitarian bent came into its own with the start of World War II—knit caps were standard cold-weather apparel for the U.S. Navy, while an olive drab version (called a “jeep cap”) was issued to soldiers as a winter hat that could fit under their helmets. This widespread use turned the humble knit cap into a postwar pop culture icon, associated with everything from the stereotypical sailor to the legendary marine biologist Jacque Cousteau (and by association, Wes Anderson’s Steve Zissou).

Eskimo Lookout

Today, the knit cap has varied competition in the realm of winter headgear, but its simple, utilitarian design remains a common sight among civilians and soldiers alike. Despite its many iterations since that first batch at Monmouth, its design remains largely unchanged, if you ask us, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Photos (from top): Steve Zissou and the Life Aquatic (Touchstone Pictures); Flemish Sailors (1647); The Battle of Sainte Eustache by Lord Charles Beauclerk (1940); Lookout on the HMS Eskimo (1942).

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