During the First World War the hat industry shrank as export markets were lost and the trade had to adapt to changing circumstances. Imports of straw plait declined, affected by the war between China and Japan. From the early 1900s Luton factories used more woven hat shapes called hoods or capelines. Most were made from plant fibres such as hemp, sisal, paper and cellophane. The manufacture of women's felt hats also grew between the wars and came to eclipse the making of straw hats, but the making of men's felt hats never became established in Luton.
Pages from the Luton directory for 1914 showing some of the town's firms involved in the hat industry © Luton Libraries
By 1939 the making of felt hats accounted for more than three-quarters of the hat trade, but by this time the trade itself was in decline and more local people were now employed in engineering than in hat manufacture. The Second World War resulted in further decline and a number of firms closed, although to some extent that was balanced by companies moving to Luton from London. During the war, it was proposed that the trade move from Luton to Gateshead, but there was much local opposition to this and the scheme was dropped.
Post-war changes in fashion to a more informal style, the "no hat craze" of the photograph below, put further pressure on the hat industry, although there was a revival of interest in millinery in the 1980s and 1990s, largely due to the fondness for hats of Princess Diana and other high-profile figures.
Hat workers ponder the implication of the "no hat craze", c.1940
©The Luton News
|Last updated 16th April 2007|