Wartime crises in the hat trade: Work, fashions and cash flow

From The Luton News: Thursday, September 3rd, 1914


The dark shadow of the war cloud that hangs over the country has impressed itself upon the course of the chief local industry. Ladies' hats may be classed with the luxuries of life, and many an economical woman has asked herself such questions as these: "How few hats can I do with?" instead of "How many hats can I afford?"


At this period of the year, under the existing conditions of fashion, preference is given to hats made of any material other than straw. Felts, velvets, fancy silks take the lead, and real straw hats made of fine materials and sewed by machinery are almost a negligible quantity. Such goods are really limited to low priced chips and tagals, the best quality hats are velvets made of Lyons velour, for which there has been an unprecedented demand.

These conditions seriously affect skilled machinists, who find it in most cases impossible to earn a living, and the outlook is anything but hopeful. There are long dull months of the year in the near future and, unless the shipping trade wakes up, this period will be marked by acute distress in some sections of the local industry.

Those firms that are thoroughly conversant with the felt trade for ladies' hats secure occupation for their operatives and find profits satisfactory. Velvets furnish employment for both sexes, the men in shaping the materials to the forms required, and the girls in putting finishing touches, as well as in joining crowns and brims, which in most cases are made separately. Many of the highest classes of these hats are made entirely by hand, which is such cases is purely women's work and in which great care and consummate skill are required. Excellence is essential in such operations, and even then throw-outs are too numerous.

As to styles for ladies' hats, they are too many for descriptive enumeration. The leading idea appears to be a modified sailor, a few shapes have slightly curved brims, and there is also a fair range of toques. Crowns are still large, so also are the openings that fit the head - the entreés as the French call them. Soft crowns are also popular; these have a negligée effect and look dressy. A forecast as to future styles would be guess work. Paris is now too much absorbed in military matters to have leisure of mind to evolve new styles. What can the local manufacturers accomplish in this department of business?

One hears a good deal of talk about the cancelling of orders by both wholesale and retail houses. In this action the latter are the worse offenders. It is reported that one of the City houses had £40,000 worth of orders cancelled by retailers in the numerous departments into which their business is divided. So acute became the situation that is said the leading wholesale houses conferred together and jointly agreed that no more cancels would be accepted. Evidently many retailers lost their heads in the early days of the panic, but as business is regaining something of its normal temperament they may now regard the situation with an approach to equanimity.

The moratorium, which in its early operation prevented a panic, will, if prolonged, seriously affect out credit system. Thousands of pounds of floating capital is temporarily taken out of general circulation. Only the balances that may have accumulated since the 1st of August can at present be used for the transaction of business. These diminishing balances must be reserved for wages and current expenses. Accounts owing to merchants will inevitably be delayed. This will diminish their current accounts with their bankers, and may cause temporary embarrassment. It is also certain that some houses are making the moratorium an excuse for delaying the payments of overdue accounts. Of course, these cases are exceptional, but they exist and constitute a menace to the stability of the credit system.

Most houses, however, who have regular dates for paying accounts, exhibit commendable promptitude, and it is by the help of these that business can be carried on in the usual way. With the greatly increased output of silver coinage, and the issue to 10 shilling and £1 notes, the banks are assuredly in a fare better position to cope successfully with abnormal financial conditions than they were at the beginning of August.