If the London Hat Museum were located a little closer to South Kensington, it would perhaps be better known. This much-loved Westminster repository tells the history of millinery, and history through millinery, which has surely been the key to its longevity. Come any day except Monday, perhaps best avoid half term, and rejoice that access to the collection is still free.
The security arch just inside the entrance felt like overkill, especially given how many years unrestricted access has been available from the street. I managed to leave a packet of Polos in my pocket, which set the beep off, and then forgot to pick up a loose pound coin from the tray and only realised afterwards when it was too late. I hope they treated it as a donation. I recommend getting the virtual guide from the main desk to impart information on the way round, although it's a little finicky to press, and low levels of illumination didn't always make it easy to follow.
The galleries are both chronological and thematic, which is both a strength and a drawback. One obvious problem with the oldest galleries is that material decays, so the only hats we really have from earlier centuries are metal helmets. The focus on battle dress isn't to everyone's tastes, but some of the Roman metalwork is exquisite, and the 1st century gladiator's helmet (top left) is a rare treat. It was ploughed up in a Suffolk field in 1965, along with a broken brow-guard which was kept in a shed until 2001 when both parts were finally reunited at the museum. The bronze headdress (bottom left) is normal for Celtic Norfolk, and is thought to be priestly regalia.
Once the Middle Ages kick in, a more hands-on approach is taken. Children will love the opportunity to don various items of headgear, some woollen, others notionally animal skin, and posing in front of the mirror. Several adults were giving it a go too, dressing up as Elizabethan maids in lacy court caps and eagerly Instagramming the result. It turns out those diamond-shaped French hoods everyone remembers from doing Henry VIII in history were de rigueur in the 1520s, complete with constituent parts called the coif, the crepine and the bongrace. I found the 18th century gallery rather less fun, probably because of all the wigs.
Rest assured that other parts of the world get a proper look in. I was particularly taken not only by the samurai helmets, but also by a series of Japanese newspaper adverts displaying a host of out-of-date classics available for gentlemen and ladies. We're told that Korea was once known as The Land of Hats, as no visitor to the peninsula would dare be seen outside without one. It's fascinating to see how other cultures were comfortable wearing bamboo, human hair and lacquered paper on their heads, rather than the drab straw or tweed we might have been sporting over here.
The cafe comes halfway round, which is unusual, but I guess the former Pillbox Gallery was the easiest to transform. Mid-afternoon it was quite quiet, but the top-hat-themed soft play area was seeing good use. Then it's back into the fray with what I christened The Bonnet Years, a seemingly endless cavalcade of twee floral fabrics and dangling ribbons. What looked like teacosies were actually Dutch caps - thankfully not labelled thus - sewn from scraps of leftover Indian chintz (bottom left). But wow, what a coup to have Queen Victoria's actual bonnet from the actual Golden Jubilee, on loan from the collection of the current monarch (bottom right).
My favourite gallery is London Contemporary. It's been laid out like the top deck of a red London bus, with a mannequin in each seat adorned with a huge variety of streetwise headgear. From beanies to crocheted Rasta tams and off-to-Ascot fascinators, a full sense of the capital's sartorial life is revealed. There's even a Pearly Queen's feathery confection up the rear, and the gentleman under the deerstalker is obviously meant to be Sherlock Holmes. I would have grabbed a photo to show you, but far too many children got in the way, and that's not the done thing these days.
An obvious, but nonetheless illuminating gallery showcases all kinds of occupation and their hats. The emergency services get the expected look-in, but it was refreshing to see the hat worn by London's first bus conductress and a genuine suffragette's prison cap. Even a Nippy's starched maid's cap is included (top left), alongside fake cakes that looked more appetising than those back in the cafe. As things get more up to date, I'm not quite sure why paintings of headscarves count, but that maroon Vivienne Westwood felt number (bottom right) is perfectly representative of the wilder end of the collection.
If you get down to the London Hat Museum before the end of October, you can enjoy their temporary exhibition looking at Balaclavas Through the Ages, after which a Remembrance-based exhibition will kick in, focusing on berets, caps and helmets from the armed services. But it's the main galleries which have eternal appeal, a little moth-eaten in places, but a perennial London favourite all the same. That's the power of the hat.