Loved or loathed, local schools’ iconic hats can certainly set parents back a pretty penny

2014-01-21 00:00

THEY’RE costly — up to R850 — and outdated. Or distinctive and “good for deportment”. Traditionalists love them, while some parents and children hate them. This then are the two ends of the stick when it comes to wearing school hats.

“You have to buy them but they hardly ever get worn,” said Mother A.

“The only thing they seem to get used for is throwing them up in the air, to make a pretty display,” said Mother B, whose son goes to Maritzburg College, home of iconic photographs of boys tossing their bashers — which cost R250 — in the air when a try is scored during rugby matches.

Globally, the wearing of formal hats has become an anachronism. Where they were once an important indicator of social and class distinction, especially among men, the freeing of social boundaries in the 1960s changed all that and the hat became more of a fashion statement.

But while a growing number of South African schools now have a compulsory sun hat, some, mostly private, still retain a “dress hat” as part of their uniform. Why? Pressed for an explanation this week, most put it down to tradition and identity, or branding.

“Our hat is one of those quirky things about us, it’s what we’re known for,” said Thomas Hagspihl, headmaster of Durban Girls’ College. The school’s white Panama, manufactured in Sri Lanka and imported from Australia, will set parents back a startling R850. “It’s costly but it lasts a long time and it’s good quality,” he said, adding that the hat is an everyday item in the uniform.

“We’ve had our hat for a long time and it’s special. In Grade One we have a ceremony at the beginning of the year where the new children get to put on their hat. It’s like a graduation ceremony.”

Maritzburg College headmaster Chris Luman said the school’s basher — an integral part of the uniform for decades — is “arguably the most treasured garment that old boys hold fondly onto”.

“There are very few schools in the country who have kept the basher as part of their uniform, because there are practical limitations to its usage. The problem is exacerbated by the cost of the item. There has been discussion at times about whether this tradition is antiquated but at the moment ... it holds huge sentimental value for thousands of old boys. It probably is a meaningless item to the new boy and his parents, but once the youngster is settled in the system he fiercely guards this tradition.”

At St John’s Diocesan School for Girls in Pietermaritzburg, marketing head Robin Kirkby said the school’s basher — which costs R265 — had been around for “a long time”. “The dads love it because they say it’s good for the girls’ posture. It keeps their backs straight.

“The juniors love wearing it and the seniors, while they don’t love wearing it, are quite emotionally attached to it. But it is traditional for the school and it’s part of our brand.”

The 102-year-old Gordon Road Girls School in Durban, a state school, has two hats — their long-standing formal hat, which costs between R130 and R140, and now a more hard-wearing sun hat too. “It’s practical,” said headmistress Yvonne Johnstone of the latter. “It’s not an anachronism because the girls wear it every day. Most of our children love the uniform and wearing the hat is drilled into them from a young age.”

Contrarily, St Nicholas Diocesan School in Maritzburg has no compulsory school hat but it does have a cap that it gives to prominent people. So far 12 have been awarded.

“It’s the highest award the school can give,” explained headmaster Luke Perkins. “When we gave one to Nelson Mandela in 1997, he put it on straight away.”

The greatest peril facing the traditional school hat could be one that’s barely visible. As the uniform shop manager at a smart private school put it bluntly, “The girls love the hat but it’s probably on its way out — because of nits.”

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