Have I mentioned how much I hate Oxford Street before? It’s quite possibly my least favourite street in the entire city. Unfortunately, over the past couple of weeks, I’ve found myself down there a surprisingly large amount. The only time it was enjoyable was on Monday, when I met up with Shoinan (whose blog you should see on the right there). I drank far more than was sensible, which was perhaps best illustrated by my strategy for getting rid of a particularly persistent rickshaw driver, namely to ask him if he could get me to the airport fast, for I needed to get out of the country fast as I had “molested a lot of children.” If there’s a hell, I’ve got a front row seat.
Oxford Street is actually very old indeed, dating back to at least the tenth century, when it was a major highway out of London. Streets in London that are named after places tend to take their names either from where they once led or from aristocratic local landowners. Oxford Street is perhaps unique in being both. It led to Oxford, being nicknamed “Oxford Street” by the early 18th century and previously known as “the Oxford Road.” At around the same time, the second Earl of Oxford bought the land just north of the street, and the nickname became official. As the land was developed, the street became something of an entertainment district and by the 19th century, was becoming known for its shops. It is these days the busiest shopping street in Europe.
The two ends of the street couldn’t present a greater contrast. At the Marble Arch end, you’ve got huge, high-class department stores, the sort of place where an invisible forcefield repels poor people at the door. The first of these was John Lewis, opened in 1864. Then at the Tottenham Court Road end, St Giles as was, you’ve got a lot of those short-term lease places, the ones that seem to be permanently having a closing down sale, even though you can’t remember when they were actually “open.” The ones where you pay a ridiculously low price for the goods and discover why two weeks later. And those deeply irritating shops where you have someone with a microphone hawking unbelievably-priced goods while a mute crowd blocks the pavement. Free tip, folks: perfume is something where you really should sample the merchandise before you pay a suspiciously low price for it.
[PARENTHESIS: The saddest example of this sort of shop I ever saw was in Kingston-Upon-Thames, in which the hustle was pre-recorded and there was no crowd. There's something pathetic about a tape shouting "Knickers half off - not yours madam!!!!!!" to no one, it's the sort of thing Samuel Beckett might have written]
So anyway, it was to this capitalist strand that I made my way a couple of weeks back in search of a hat. Not just any hat, though. I was specifically looking for a black fedora. I did already have one, which I’d bought back in 2001. Unfortunately, several years in storage had taken their toll, and held up to the light you could see enough moth-bitten holes to make it into a decent collander (albeit a totally gross one). Furthermore, it didn’t quite fit. I had to literally pull it down on to my head. And I wasn’t sure about the band. But I really liked the look - with my red scarf, long black coat, navy blue waistcoat and watch chain I had a bit of an 1890s boho thing going on (see M. Lautrec’s poster above right). Technically a fedora is out of period, as they didn’t become fashionable for men until the end of the First World War, but just try finding a Homburg for a decent price.
I figured Oxford Street would be my best bet. Camden has more vintage shops, but you could guarantee being charged a small fortune for something that’ll go out of shape in the first shower of rain. It’s possible to look very expensive for surprisingly little money, but below a certain point you really do get what you pay for.
Do you know, there was not a fedora to be found in the entire street. No end of trilbies, thanks to the current hipster trend for wearing them. I’m entirely the wrong shape to be a hipster – above a certain weight, one is not expected to be fashionable. In any case, I don’t follow fashion on the grounds that when I dress up I want to actually be noticed.
Actually, I did find one fedora in a certain upscale department store opened in 1864, but it was at a ridiculous price and wasn’t even particularly nice. The crown was too shallow for my taste. The salesman tried to convince me that I was making a mistake, but frankly for that kind of money I want a hat that tells me I’m hot.
In the end, I found a much nicer fedora for a third of the price in Marks and Spencers Merton, about ten minutes from my front door. Which just goes to show something or other. In the absence of a moral, I shall repeat the slogan of the British Hat Advisory Board (BHAB): “We all adore a fedora.”
The disadvantage of having a hat that I can actually put on is that it can be taken off with surprising ease, as I found out on my way back when mine was blown off by an unexpected gust of wind from a departing train at the Tube station. However, like Indiana Jones, I wasn’t about to leave my fedora in danger, and so I deftly reached down and plucked my trusty hat from the running rail. I should note that this is not a clever thing to do unless you a) know exactly how long there is between trains, b) know which rails carry current, c) know how far it is from platform level to the rail and d) really like your hat.
All in all, this week’s shaping up to be thoroughly irresponsible. Excellent.