Grasping At Straws

The two young Princes, George and Johnnie, stand on a shingle beach looking out to sea from under the shading brims of their straw summer hats. It’s the year 1910 and they are gazing at the incongruous spectacle of the Russian Tsar taking a bathe in the English channel. The scene comes from Stephen Poliakoff’s elegiac drama The Lost Prince, which portrays a society at its zenith, enjoying the carefree prelude of a few short years before being eclipsed by war. The Princes’ elegant straw hats condense a leisured existence of seaside promenades, picnics, tennis and boating parties.

The style is the ‘sailor,’ which was based closely on the white ‘sennet’ hats issued to naval ratings in the second half of the 19th century. The term sennet refers to the plaited fibres of the palm leaf from which these hats were originally made and indeed these pale straws were mostly worn in warmer latitudes; otherwise a black canvas hat was issued to the sailors 'according to the nature of the climate in which they may be serving'. Both the black and the white sailor straws were trimmed around the crown with ribbons bearing the name of the ship in gold and these ‘tallies’ are faithfully copied in the ‘regulation sailor straws’ retailed for children from the 1880s up until the end of the First World War...

You can read this article in full in Selvedge issue 47.

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