Hat’s not on in this establishment, sir

Bars in London are telling customers to remove their hats - so the spy cameras can get a better look at them. Cheers!

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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It’s now three months since the smoking ban in ‘places of work’ in England put an end to sparking up cigarettes in pubs, clubs and bars. It has become commonplace for smokers to huddle outside drinking dens like naughty school kids. Now, it’s not just the fag in your mouth that the doormen are cracking down on; the hat on your head could get you barred, too.

According to a report in London listing magazine Time Out, a growing number of London establishments are enforcing a ‘hat ban’ on customers wishing to drink on their premises. It is one thing for pot-bellied landlords to tell customers they’ve had ‘too much to drink’ and ‘clear off home’. It’s another thing serving up strong sartorial diktat. Just who do they think they are? Don’t they want our hard-earned cash and custom?

‘We operate a smart casual dress code’, a barmaid told me at the busy Porterhouse pub in Covent Garden in central London. ‘And that means no hats allowed in the pub.’ Surely a nice trilby hat or a cream fedora hat fits the criteria of ‘smart casual’? She replied with unblinking primness: ‘We can’t have one hat rule for some and one hat rule for others.’ In other words, whether you are sporting a chavtastic Burberry cap or some designer item of millinery straight out of Royal Ascot, you won’t be heading to the bar in a hurry. If Rat Pack stars like Frank Sinatra were around today, they would no doubt be turfed out of such premises for their anti-social headgear, no matter how much cash they were prepared to put across the bar.

Needless to say, the ‘smart casual’ policy at the Porterhouse and some branches of All Bar One in central London is not really the justification for this ludicrous hat ban. It seems publicans have taken their cue from shopping centres such as Bluewater on the outskirts of London. Security staff there ban shoppers from wearing hoodies on the basis that any covering of the face prevents the wearer from being identified on closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV).

‘Yes, that’s true’, says the Porterhouse pub’s barmaid, agreeing with Bluewater’s policy on hooded tops. ‘Hats do obscure someone’s face and CCTVs need to see them in case there’s any trouble.’ She’s not alone with this explanation either. A barman at an All Bar One told Time Out: ‘We don’t allow hats to be worn in the bar. We absolutely don’t allow it. We need all faces to be seen by the CCTV.’ (1)

Whilst such nit-picking bans might be a shock to the good liberals at Time Out, it seems this development has been in operation throughout the country for a while now. In March 2006, retired teacher Betty Wilbraham was told by staff at The Hereward pub in Ely, Cambridgeshire, to remove her black rain hat because ‘its CCTV camera would not be able to see her face clearly enough’. Pub licensee Tony Love said it was pub policy to always ask people to remove their hats. ‘It’s all to do with the CCTV. We have 13 cameras inside the pub and we cannot be seen to be discriminating between the youths and the elderly people.’ (2) Elsewhere at The Wheatsheaves in Frome, Somerset, one publican failed to get into the Christmas spirit last year by banning anyone who wore Santa Claus hats for the same reason. The Wheatsheaves’ publican, Sam Ingram, proved that the deadhand of Scrooge was alive and kicking by bluntly stating: ‘Just because they’re dressed up as Santa doesn’t mean they couldn’t start a riot.’ (3) No doubt Ingram spends his time behind the bar on Christmas Day crying ‘Humbug!’ to anyone who’ll listen.

Is it really the case that hats of any description obscure someone’s face? If so, what will be next? Will Amy Winehouse be refused entry into pubs because her perfectly coiffured beehive obscures her face? Will bowl-headed indie kids be ordered to have their fringes cut before they can get served? And why does it matter if someone’s face is obscured anyway? Why this poisonous presumption that pub dwellers are automatically out to cause trouble?

The enforcement of such a bizarre rule as the ‘hat ban’ may be an attempt to assert control in the name of tackling crime – there has always been a ‘Little Hitler’ tendency among door staff and publicans. But the fact that such a ban seems to have been accepted at all shows how a demand for security and safety permeates society at present. It’s interesting that while respectable pensioners have kicked up a fuss at the hat ban, younger people have tended to acquiesce to the demand to remove their headgear. In fact, surveillance is more or less seen as acceptable if it leads to a greater sense of security. And if that means toning down the headgear in the name of peace and quiet, then so be it. The way landlords justify the ban is also a kind of artificial ‘zero tolerance’ policy where bouncers or staff are seen to flex their authority by telling a customer what is and what isn’t permissible. A barman from an All Bar One branch in Soho told me, ‘a customer would think twice about causing trouble if a doorman has already told them off. The hat ban acts as a deterrent.’

What lies behind such demand for safety and security is a perception that individual autonomy is problematic in and of itself. Thus all individuals need some kind of rules and regulation because anyone can suddenly ‘get out of hand’. Forcing pub goers to remove their personal choice of headgear is done to constrain someone’s free will and independence, lest that free will leads to aggro and arguments – the dress code implies a behaviour code, too. Indeed, there is something servile about forcing customers to ‘remove their hats’, with ugly echoes of the ‘doffing your cap’ reverence to society’s supposed ‘betters’ in the past. In this case, it’s a reverence to New Britain’s principles of authority, order and knowing-your-place. At root lies nothing but contempt for pub-going folk, as the aforementioned ‘I predict a riot’ publican makes abundantly clear.

To be fair, other establishments are strongly against this growing fad for hat bans in pubs. As one barman from Bar Soho told me: ‘In this pub we leave it up to the individual to think for themselves. It’s not our job to tell people what they should or should not wear.’ Nevertheless, the fact that there’s a growing number of pubs operating a hat ban at all reveals much about the overwhelming Culture of Unfreedom in the UK. It’s not simply the property of a crudely authoritarian government like New Labour, but something that influences all aspects of society.

So the government hasn’t made wearing hats in pubs illegal (yet), nor have the authorities adopted the logo of Eighties one-hit-wonders Men Without Hats and stuck it in all pub windows. But despite the smoking ban, pubs are still relatively unregulated public spaces and so jumpy landlords and bouncers apparently feel the need to issue such daft rules. When such a ban is introduced, even in a few establishments, it invites further and more heavy-handed intervention from the authorities, too. How long before a politician proposes on-the-spot fines for wearing hats ‘in closed public places’?

Making people take their hats off isn’t the end of the world – but it fits into a corrosive, creeping process of restricting our freedoms, large and small. One of these days, this endless procession of Looney Tunes restrictions on our liberties will deprive us of any meaningful rights – or as Bugs Bunny might say: ‘Hat’s all, folks!’

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell. He is speaking at the session Teach the world to sing at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

Previously on spiked

Jennie Bristow said New Labour’s ‘culture of respect’ is as anti-social as it is illiberal. Mick Hume saw through the smoking ban, which Dolan Cummings said was a victory for the inner teacher’s pet. Nathalie Rothschild reported on two karaoke kings’ little-publicised protest against the ban. Or read more at spiked issues Smoking and Liberties.

(1) ‘Hats the way, uh-huh uh-huh, I like it’, Rebecca Taylor, Time Out, 26 September 2007

(2) ‘”Hats off” pub tells 82 year old’, BBC News, 9 March 2006

(3) ‘Pub revellers banned from wearing Santa hats’,, 15 December 2006

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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