Writer and stylist Lena Dystant cosies up to a winter classic.
Not all headwear is created equal and this rings particularly true when it comes to the Watch Cap. Rather like the peacoat, trench or chino, this unquestionable classic has crossed over from military issue to civilian staple, now firmly established as a menswear standard. Forever tied to its naval roots, the Watch Cap carries an undeniable sense of nostalgia and yet its versatility and utter simplicity ensure it remains contemporary and wearable; elevated by its origins but never restricted by them.
Dating back to the 1930s, used widely during WW2, the original United States Navy Watch Cap had a singular purpose: protection. Spending long periods on deck, sailors were exposed to some of the most testing conditions imaginable. Bitter winds, icy rain and powerful storms called for a uniform that offered both insulation and a defence against the elements, allowing the wearer to carry out his duties unhindered, including, as the hat’s name would reference, keeping ‘watch.’
Fitting perfectly into the USN’s clean, noble aesthetic, dense and compact, the Watch Cap’s early design used a no-nonsense heavyweight worsted wool which, combined with a unique 6-panel ‘Petal’ weave at the crown, created a near water-proof hat. A long structure designed to be folded or double folded to provide a warm and secure brim, the Watch Caps of the era are recognisable by the quartermaster Naval Clothing Factory label. Featuring the phrase “100% Wool Exclusive of Ornamentation” below a pair of finely formed anchors, with room for the wearer’s name and service number, the body of the cap was often proudly personalised with white stencilled characters.
Fast forward to the 1960s and 1970s, like many iconic pieces of military kit, the Watch Cap became somewhat of a counterculture favourite, spotted on bikers and anti-war demonstrators alike. Making its way onto the big screen, it featured heavily in legendary films of the time from The Deerhunter and Rebel Rousers to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson helping to cement the hat’s move into popular culture.
That the Watch Cap remains as popular as ever is testament to its unquestionable practicality and unfussy good looks. Form and function perfectly in balance, it gets the job done; from the way in which it sits so neatly on the head to its endlessly adjustable brim, a hat ideal for those who consider themselves anti-headwear. That it carries with it a romantic vision of life on the high seas only reinforces its power, the icing on the cake in terms of authentic backstory.
Depending on quality of materials and cut, the Watch Cap is that rare item, a headwear piece both rugged and smart. Drake’s contemporary version strips back this classic to its bare, elegant, essentials. Knitted in Scotland using a soft lambswool across an understated palette, it retains much of the original’s spirit, particularly in its fit. Perfect to accompany you on a chilly morning commute, its clean lines make it the ideal pairing for an overcoat and suit. For weekends off, it is equally at home with a brushed Shetland crewneck, dark denim and a well-worn pair of suede chukkas. Of course, its natural partner remains the peacoat, discreet sophistication in all navy, an unbeatable duo then and now.