Nothing brings together style, history and social organisation more than a hat. When the Europeans began commerce with India in the 16th century, they were known for never going about with their heads uncovered. They came to be known as the kulahposhan — the people of the hat. In India, one was recognised by the style and ornateness of the turban one wore. There were those, of course, for whom wearing a headdress of any kind was forbidden. Getting to keep one’s headdress on was a sign of greater status: yokels in front of English squires until as late as Edwardian England, and lower castes facing upper caste landlords, had to uncover their heads. "To go cap in hand" as much as "I lay my turban at your feet" signified deference and the hope of mercy or patronage. For the wealthy, of course, hats became symbols of excess. Stovepipe hats for men and the baroque foliage on hats worn by women at Ascot racecourse signified luxury and status: a preference for flamboyance over comfort. Hat-...

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