In my very short time as a substitute teacher in the Swedish public school system, I suddenly had a new relationship with baseball caps: trying to get boys 12-15 to please take them off, if I have to ask you a fifth time there will be consequences, et cetera. What, besides an emphatic need to do the opposite of anything a substitute teacher says, makes these caps so irresistible, so difficult to remove? Steven Bryden has been equally besatt with hats his whole life, beginning with a Marlboro merchandise hat his father gave him. Now that caps have become the objects of obsession and collection, a new book on the subject was in order: Bryden’s Caps/One Size Fits All was released this year. One cap enthusiast even called it a “bible.”
For the fashion historian this is a meritorious material culture study from a true insider. The book prioritizes the object as a collector’s item, and offers a pop history of the ubiquitous accessory that is heavy on images and photography. From wool flannel vintage remakes to the Odd Future Golf cap, Bryden centers his book around a selection of hats that represent the width and breadth of cap culture.
After a (very) short history by Gary Warnett, the reader is presented with diagrams from a baseball cap patent, which allows Bryden to show us the “Anatomy of a Cap”: here is the brim, the buckram, the sweatband. It may seem like overdrive for such a simple garment, but I like the democratic approach. Caps and sneakers have become, oxymoronically, elite street fashion, but this book allows everyone to come in on the same level. Bryden outlines the major manufacturers, including the well-known New Era and the perhaps lesser-known Sports Specialties Corporation (later sold to Nike). The book has a collector’s tone: just enough information so that you can impress your friends and keep an eye on what you might like to own and wear yourself.
So it’s no surprise that the most substantial section of this book is about individual specimen, listing specs like date, type of hat, and a few lines of observation, maybe a snippet of historical significance or an insidery trivia gem. The museum-collections-report-like sentence structure can sound unnatural considering the pop-history function of the book, but the empirical observation also serves to honor the objects with respectful distance:
The [ESPN ‘Boo-Yeah!!’] cap is a promotional item for the US TV network ESPN; it was only available on studio tours. It features the network’s ‘Boo-Yeah!!’ strapline stitched onto the rear; this was a well-known catchphrase of SportCenter anchor Stuart Scott. The cap has an adjustable strap and is constructed from cotton twill. (93)
While each of these descriptions may be fascinating to cap collectors, and possibly very useful for future fashion historians (what was “in,” collectable, or at least available in 2014?), the second half of the book provides the most entertaining sections: interviews with innovators, photographs of the film and sports stars that made caps a Thing, and street style. Offering the reader insights from “key insiders from the streetwear world,” Bryden continues to let us in on the ground floor. The interviews in the “Influencers and Innovators” section are short; Bryden asks marginally more interesting questions than we saw in the Fashion Scandinavia book, but we the readers want more! Fittingly, only one woman is interviewed: this is a male fashion world.
The “Caps Made Famous” chapter is the most engaging, visually strong and nostalgic. Pop culture icons from Eddie Merckx and Will Smith to Lewis Hamilton and A$AP Rocky are shown in their cap of choice, providing a historical flow. Remember Daryl Strawberry? Did you know that the Tri-Mountain Baseball Club was the first New England team to take up New York-style baseball?
“Street Snaps” brings the cap back into the present, offering a variety of different faces (mostly young, mostly male) framed by an equally broad range of caps. The volume ends with a list of shops for those readers inspired to start or expand his or her own collection.
This book shows how not only the aesthetics and the materials but also the meanings and the use of caps have changed from their earliest years in the late nineteenth century, in brief. Acknowledging and furthering the cult status of the cap, Cap/One Size Fits All provides a foundation for collectors and maybe even collections personnel in museums with forward-thinking accessions policies. While it is an interesting, quick read even for those not interested in wearing caps, I’m not sure it’s worthwhile to fashion historians except for the value inherent in its insider perspective (it’s not the first book about the cap phenomenon, but it is the first one in almost 20 years) It collates pertinent information into one resource in a way the internet cannot, with a clear structure and a nice flow. Far from academic, it is the ideal analog homage to a now-timeless accessory.
Lead Image: Cover of Caps/One Size Fits All by Steven Bryden [Prestel, 2014].
Garcia, Bobbito. Where’d You Get Those? New York City’s Sneaker Culture 1960-1987. New York: Testify Books, 2003.
Harris, Alice. The White T. New York: HarperStyle, 1996.
Sullivan, Deidre. Caps. New York: Andrew McMeel Publications, 1997.
Talbot, Stephanie. Slogan T-Shirts: cult and culture. London: A&C Black, 2013.
If you speak Swedish, I suggest you listen to the Baseballkepsen episode of Stil i P1. If you have any other insider baseball cap research tips, leave them in the comments section and I’ll update this bibliography!